Blennerhassett Mansion Groundbreaking

Parkersburg News
June 20, 1984

200 Attend Historic Ceremony On Island

By Albert J. Woofter
Of the News Staff

History defining history.

With West Virginia Gov. Jay Rockefeller and 14-year-old Jay Fowler wielding the shiny ceremonial shovel, ground was broken Tuesday for the project to restore the Blennerhassett mansion on historic Blennerhassett Island in the Ohio River two miles downstream from Parkersburg.

"I think what you all do here today is extraordinary," said Gov. Rockefeller in remarks prior to the moving of the first shove[l]ful of earth, assisted by young Fowler, son of Daniel B. Fowler, director of the Blennerhassett Historical Park Commissioner.

Fowler estimated more than 200 people were on hand for the ceremonies. The spot where the shovel bit the earth is the spot where Harman Blennerhassett's office and laboratory were located in the original mansion which accidentally burned to the ground in 1811.

Rockefeller, who on July 5, 1983, announced plans for the mansion restoration, in his groundbreaking remarks said "it is going to be something which connects our people in wonderful ways."

"The imagination is wonderful but it has to be led and you build this mansion and the people will come not 40,000 or 50,000 but even more enormous numbers because they will be able to connect together with our history," he said.

"With 40 wars going on in the world and the incredible federal deficits and all the problems that everybody worries about all the time there comes a time which you have to link to the past, understand where you come from, feel good about yourself and feel happy," Rockefeller said.

"That's your heritage - and know all of this makes sense. There is a kind of pattern in all this and that comes from a mixture of history defining history which is what this will be and the imagination which is captivated both by history and also environment: for example, the incredible grove of black walnut trees."

It was his second reference to the walnuts. Earlier in his remarks he called the grove near the mansion site "a glorious symphony."

"You tell me where - anywhere in West Virginia - there are so many beautiful black walnut trees," he said.

Terming the mansion restoration a "magnificent project" and referring to the discovery nearby of site of a prehistoric Indian house, Rockefeller said even without all this it would still be "an island of magic - of true and beautiful magic."

Rockefeller read a proclamation designating the day as Adventure Galley II Day. With him was Vaughan P. Wendland, whose brainchild, a pioneer type flatboat, was moored at the island as one of its stops on its way down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Adventure Galley II was available for those attending the ceremony to go on board.

The groundbreaking was co-sponsored by Country Roads Travel Council and the Blennerhassett Historical Park Commission. County Roads Vice President Steve Nicely said it was the kickoff of the Governor's Travel Program to draw attention to the state's travel program and encourage West Virginians to see West Virginia.

Nicely opened the groundbreaking event.

"Really, all of you are distinguished guests," he said, noting the resent and past City Councils and administrations were represented among those present, also the legislative delegation: Sen. Keith Burdette and Delegates Joe Albright, George Farley and Sandy Rogers.

In discussing the mansion project he cites five D's: dreams, desire, dedication, determination and donations.

Nicely introduced William O. Lay, vice president of the Blennerhassett Park Commissioner, who was acting in the absence of commission chairman Dr. Fay P. Greene, M. D., who was unable to be present.

"It is a day the commission has looked forward to for many, many moons," Lay said. "We welcome you to share with us this momentous occasion."

Among those in the audience was A. B. "Champ" Smith III of Parkersburg, a pioneer in the move toward development of the island.

He was recognized by Lay for his effort in this direction.

"Several years ago the thought was conceived of recreating Harman Blennerhassett's Eden on the River - and with the aid of many people this thing came about,["] said Lay, citing Smith along with Dr. Greene and others in conjunction with the initial concept.

Smith in 1969 asked the Sesquicentennial Committee of which he was chairm[a]n to make development of the island a continuing project.

Lay also singled out Dr. Greene, Fowler and Commission Historian Dr. Ray Swick for their efforts.

"Our commission can't speak too highly of these three people," he said.

"They made this project go. They kept it together," Lay said.

He also recognized Albright, Farley and the governor's office for their efforts and diligence and the two commission members present, James M. Bradley Jr. of Parkersburg and Mrs. Freda N. Paul of Huntington.

J. Delmar Baker, president of County Roads Travel Council and manager of Fenton Gift Shop at Williamstown, and Tag Galyean of TAG Architects, Inc., of Charleston and Washington, D. C., also spoke prior to Fowler's remarks in introducing the governor.

Baker termed the project "a major milestone in the economic development of the entire Mid-Ohio Valley."

"It will be the catalyst for more and improved motels, camp grounds, service stations, retail stores and other businesses that supply them," he said.

Galyean cited the historical, archaeological and architectural research associated with the mansion restoration and recognized Dave Burson who was the lead architect for the project.

Prior to introducing the governor, Fowler noted the presence of Jack Stephens, president of Carl E. Stephens Construction Co., among those assembled for the ceremony. The Parkersburg firm submitted the lowest base bid - $785,000 - on the project.

Rockefeller arrived on the island by helicopter and following the ceremony took off for Wheeling with subsequent planned stops at Jackson's Mill for Boys State, Cheylan and Fayette County.

Others made the trip to the island and back aboard the sternwheelers Blennerhassett and Centennial. Food, courtesy of the governor's office, was catered by island concession operator May Meeks. A cake decorated with a likeness of the mansion was from McHappy's. Fresh cut flowers were furnished by Obermeyer's.

Fowler said contract documents for the mansion restoration are being processed at this time. He expressed hope of construction starting late this month. On display was a model of the structure. It was by TAG Architects.

Parks and Recreation