PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — One of the most prized possessions of Harman Blennerhassett, the colorful Anglo-Irish Renaissance man and political adventurer who created a short-lived Eden on an Ohio River island at the end of the 18th century, has been returned to the West Virginia state park charged with preserving his legacy.
The brass telescope Blennerhassett used to make astronomical observations from the roof of the mansion he had built on the island that bears his name arrived at the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History, the mainland component of Blennerhassett Island State Historical Park, on Aug. 12, nearly 209 years after it and other items that survived the island’s plundering were auctioned to pay creditors.
While the telescope’s presence on the island estate that Blennerhassett and his wife Margaret bought in 1799 and fled in 1806, after becoming enmeshed in a western land-grab plot led by former Vice President Aaron Burr, is well documented, it wasn’t until 2005 that area historians learned what became of the London-made telescope.
“During an internet search, my friend Linda Showalter at Marietta College found an Oct. 12, 1902 article in the Buffalo Express about a telescope once owned by Harman Blennerhassett being donated to the Buffalo (New York) Historical Society,” the organization that created the Buffalo History Museum, said Ray Swick, historian emeritus for West Virginia State Parks.
Swick contacted officials at the Buffalo museum and began a dialogue about possibly acquiring the piece.
“It didn’t prosper,” he said. “Museums don’t like to part with exhibits in their collections. By 2012, I more or less dropped the effort.”
But early last year, former Assistant Park Superintendent Miles Evenson asked Swick about how talks to bring the telescope back to the mid-Ohio Valley were going.
When the historian told Evenson the talks had gone nowhere, “Miles said to try again,” Swick recalled. “I went online to find out who the top person at the museum was, and I made contact with Steven P. McCarville, president of the Buffalo History Museum’s board of managers, who seemed interested in working something out.”
Swick said McCarville, aware that the telescope has more significance in the Parkersburg area than it did in Buffalo, where there is no direct connection with the Blennerhassetts, was sympathetic to the idea of returning it to the place where the Blennerhassetts left a legacy. In Buffalo, the telescope spent most of its time in storage, appearing in occasional “Ever After” and “Recollections” exhibits of unique but not necessarily Buffalo-related pieces from the museum’s vaults.
Eventually, an agreement was worked out among members of the Buffalo museum’s board of managers to sell the telescope to the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History. The telescope was appraised at Sotheby’s in New York, a selling price was established and the Friends of Blennerhassett, one of two nonprofit support groups assisting the park in its effort to improve its museum and rebuilt island mansion stepped up to the plate to purchase the piece for a price park officials declined to disclose.
“Our board members said, ‘Let’s get it while we can,'” said Mark Abbott, president of the Friends of Blennerhassett. “It’s one of our most prized possessions, even though its presence was unknown to us until 2005. It’s kind of amazing that the internet helped discover where it was and what happened to it since it left the island.”
The Buffalo History Museum received the telescope in 1905, first as a loan and later as a gift from Buffalo businessman William G. Justice, a member of the museum’s board of managers. Justice’s grandfather, George M. Justice of Philadelphia, was described as “a gentleman of scientific attainments and of considerable repute as an astronomer,” according to “The Book of the Museum” a 1921 publication of the Buffalo Historical Society.
The elder Justice bought the telescope in about 1820 from the unknown individual who bought it at one of the two creditors’ auctions held in Wood County in 1807, Swick said.
According to “The Book of the Museum,” Justice was later “commissioned by the school authorities of his day to import and mount an instrument in the observatory of their building on Broad Street — the famous school of which John S. Hart was then principal.”
The school for which Justice was charged with locating a telescope was Philadelphia’s Central High School, which in 1838 was the second public high school to open in America. The school’s early administrators budgeted funding to build an observatory with a revolving dome atop the new high school and relied on Justice’s expertise to equip it with the best telescope that could be found for $10,000, which turned out to be an 8-foot-long German-made instrument with a 6-inch equatorial reflector.
Central High operated the nation’s fourth astronomical observatory when the ‘scope was installed in the early 1840s. Justice, a member of the school’s board of controllers, was later asked to design two other observatories.
Blennerhassett bought the telescope in 1795 or 1796 on a shopping spree in London after he and his wife, who also was his niece, sold the 7,000-acre estate he inherited in County Cork and moved to America. The name and address of the telescope’s maker, W. & S. Jones, Holburn, London, are engraved on the optical tube, along with its serial number, 38.
Though a lawyer, Blennerhassett was more drawn to science and nature than litigation. In addition to the telescope, he outfitted himself with a chemical laboratory and equipment for experimenting with electricity and magnetism before beginning a new life in the United States.
After spending the winter of 1796 in Pittsburgh, the Blennerhassetts decided to move closer to America’s western frontier and set out by boat to Marietta, Ohio, then the Northwestern Territory, arriving in July. After spending the summer looking at possible home sites, they took a ride in a pirogue to an island about two miles downriver from the mouth of the Little Kanawha and landed on what was then known as Backus Island and immediately fell in love with the site. They bought the upper half of the island and built what may have been the grandest home east of the Alleghenies at the time.
The 7,000 square foot Palladian-style mansion contained furnishings brought in from London and Baltimore, oriental rugs, and alabaster lamps suspended from the ceilings with silver chains.
When the mansion was completed in 1800, Blennerhassett “had a platform built atop the middle section of roof — the highest point of the building — where he conducted his observations,” Swick said. The brass telescope “was his pride and joy. Few families at the time could afford such an elaborate rarity, and few possessed the intellectual curiosity to want to own one.”
But studying the night skies over the Ohio River was not the only thing that left Blennerhassett starstruck. In 1805, after exchanging letters, he was visited by Burr, who enlisted the wealthy frontiersman in a scheme, according to varying historic accounts, to either carve out an independent country from the southwestern portion of the Louisiana Purchase or take possession of a portion of Spanish-owned land in what is now Texas.
Burr wanted the Ohio River island to become the staging point for the expedition, and with Blennerhassett’s assistance, ordered 15 flatboats to be built in Marietta and stocked with supplies during a visit in 1806. But when word of Burr’s plans got out, militiamen seized most of the newly built boats on the Ohio side of the river on Dec. 10, 1806, and made plans to raid Blennerhassett Island the following morning.
Harman Blennerhassett and about 40 of Burr’s men set off from the island during the night of Dec. 10 in four flatboats and one smaller craft and escaped downriver to Kentucky. Margaret Blennerhassett managed to flee the island a week later and joined her husband, after seeing the couple’s home and gardens ransacked by militiamen.
Burr and Blennerhassett both were eventually tried for, and acquitted of, treason, but both were left financially ruined for having taken part in the scheme. Harman Blennerhassett visited his island and looted mansion for the last time in 1807, when he rented his farmland to his friend, Col. Nathaniel Cushing of Belpre, Ohio. A few months later, his remaining personal property, including his telescope, was ordered seized and auctioned by the Sheriff of Wood County to satisfy creditors.
Margaret Blennerhassett never returned to the island.
In 1811, hemp raised on the island that was being stored in the mansion was accidentally set on fire by a pair of slaves. The building burned to the ground.
“We will eventually construct a separate display case for the telescope,” said Abbott. “It will be fun to research how it worked and how it was built.”