Parkersburg, West Virginia sits at a crossroad of early American history. The Ohio river was an important waterway for westward expansion in the early 1800s and port towns sprang up to support travelers. The region also saw the first major oil fields in the United States and was a leader in oil and natural gas production into the 20th century. The Parkersburg area offers an unique glimpse back in time through walking tours, museums, and a boat ride to an island with a special story.
Fort Boreman: See Parkersburg from Above
Before heading into Parkersburg, drive up to Fort Boreman just west of the town. Here you’ll find remnants of the old Civil War era defensive trenches and a rebuilt artillery bastion on top of the hill. While not much survives from the Civil War encampment, the bluff provides a stunning overview of Parkersburg and the surrounding area. Walk over to the wall at the end of the parking lot and you’ll find a wide open view of the Ohio river. To the left is Blennerhassett Island and to the right is downtown Parkersburg and the many bridges crossing into Ohio. See those walls around the city? The mighty Ohio river has a habit of flooding in the Spring. The walking trail off to the right loops around the hill of Fort Boreman and offers a few more peeks of Parkersburg from between the trees.
Blennerhassett Hotel: Vintage Parkersburg Luxury
Last of the great hotels built in Parkersburg during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Blennerhassett Hotel is the perfect base of operations for an historic tour. Originally opened in 1889, the hotel has undergone major refurbishments in the 1980s and 200s. Today, guests will find comfortably modern accommodations which retain distinctive Victorian style. The hotel is located in the midst of downtown; an easy walk to some attractions.
The 89 rooms and suites are spacious with prices on par with basic chain hotels, but with a much more elegant atmosphere. Inside you’ll find a dining room and lounge with outdoor patio, and a Starbucks coffee bar to kick start your mornings. Free valet parking adds even more value and convenience. Read more about the hotel here.
Henderson Hall Plantation
Henderson Hall, just a few miles outside of Parkersburg, is one of the more interesting historic homes I have visited. The first Hendersons came to the region from an established Virginia family. Setting up along the banks of the Ohio river, they were an integral part of the area for the next two centuries.
The former Henderson plantation is now open to the public for tours. Unlike most museum houses, here you’ll find nearly all of the interior decorations and personal items are original to the family. Inside the three floors are flooded with natural light through the tall windows, which illuminates decades of family possessions. Most rooms are decorated as they would have been in the past, while a few upstairs feature items from various Henderson businesses. For an excellent view of the surrounding landscape, ask the docents if the cupola is open. Read my article for more information and pictures of the house.
Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History
Back in town, head over to the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History. The first and second floors feature a collection of items from various time periods ranging from the late 1700s to mid 1900s. Local families, industries, and other history line the walls and fill the glass cases to give visitors a glimpse of life in and around Parkersburg. After looking around, be sure to check out the basement.
Most of the lower level is filled with the Stahl collection, which is comprised of hundreds of Native American artifacts from the area. Pieces have been arranged into display cases by Stahl along with descriptions. However, the most important thing to see in the basement is the short film on the Blennerhassett family and their life on the island. Tickets to sail on the stern wheeler over to the island can be purchased at the museum.
Board a small stern wheeler and float away from the modern world for a while. Blennerhassett Island State Park, located in the middle of the Ohio river, was home to the Blennerhassett family for only a few years, but had a lasting impact on local history. After purchasing land on the island in 1798, they built a large home and set up a plantation. Unfortunately, the family got mixed up in a plot by Aaron Burr, who was accused of treason and arrested. The Blennerhassetts had to flee their estate and never managed to find success or stability again. Read more about this incident, the family’s unfortunate travels, and a ghostly encounter I had on the island here. On the island visitors can tour the Blennerhassett mansion, take a wagon ride, or explore the area on foot or bicycle. There is a snack bar and gift shop to round out the visit. Also watch for special events, such as Colonial or Civil War encampments for further immersion into life in the 1800s.
Explore Parkersburg by Foot
From the hotel, there are several attractions accessible by foot. Across the street is the Wood County Courthouse, built in 1899 dominates the skyline and is worth a close up view. Just on the other side is the Oil & Gas Museum. You’ll easily spot it by the giant mural on the side of the building and mechanical implements strewn about on the lawn. The Oil & Gas industry brought in much of the people and money to develop Parkersburg. Inside the museum looks more like an old garage, but upon closer inspection you’ll find a plethora of information and artifacts detailing the local industry. Other items include intact areas of the former hardware store in which the museum is housed along with other local historical items.
The Julia-Ann Square Historic District contains over 100 elegant homes from the second half of the 19th century. The stately homes were built during the high times of America’s first oil boom. A self-guided walking tour will take you past a myriad of styles, which is sure to please any architecture enthusiast. The district’s website contains several videos of individuals home tours and brochures can be found at various locations in the district. Special events happen throughout the year.
Cap off your visit to Parkersburg with a show or tour of the historic Smooth Theater. Opened in 1926 for traveling Vaudeville acts, the theater has been meticulously restored and once again hosts shows. Big Band, contemporary artists, Christmas plays, and even Vaudeville Camp for the kids fill the old theater.
Parkersburg, West Virginia is an often overlooked piece of early American history. So much was happening in the Western frontier of the Mid-Ohio Valley just after the Revolution. The Ohio river served as a gateway to the Western territories and Mississippi, which became even more important once the first oil wells were built in the area. This boom town prospered from the 1850s until the early 20th century. Spend a few days in and around town to see some interesting museums, stately old homes, and a solid downtown core. Annual event, such as Taste of Parkersburg and Homecoming Festival, add an extra layer of excitement to this upcoming destination.