West Virginia’s third-largest city has embraced its history and is eager to share it with others. Located at the spot where the Little Kanawha River meets the Ohio River, Parkersburg and small towns nearby also are a center for theater, shopping, and unique restaurants.
Parkersburg’s importance to the nation predates West Virginia statehood. Among the area’s numerous parks is Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, accessible via sternwheeler. The island’s most momentous chapter opened with the 1798 arrival of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, wealthy Irish aristocrats fleeing political persecution and personal scandal. In 1805–06, they allowed their estate to become headquarters for Aaron Burr’s military expedition to the Southwest, an episode that raised the island to national renown.
The island now has a reconstructed mansion, narrated wagon rides, a concession stand, gift shop, hiking trails and picnic facilities. There are frequent special activities. The island park is open May-October. The Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History, at Second and Juliana Streets in downtown Parkersburg, is open year-around.
The conspirator’s name also graces the city’s most well-known hotel. The Blennerhassett has late-1800s elegant crown moldings and elaborate light fixtures, a period library and a third-floor atrium sitting area lit by a skylight two stories above. Downtown Parkersburg is filled with interesting shops and specialty restaurants. The Smoot Theatre, a restored 1926 vaudeville venue, hosts traveling shows, local theater, comedy acts, even dessert tours. The Parkersburg Art Center, 725 Market Street, has exhibitions, tours, and a gift shop, all featuring regional and national works.
There also are unique shopping possibilities near Parkersburg. Fenton Glass in Williamstown, 14 miles away, has halted production, but the gift shop remains open.
In nearby Vienna, a suburb of Parkersburg, the sweet scent of chocolate will lure passersby into Holl’s Swiss Chocolatier, an “artisan chocolatier, trained in traditional Swiss methods,” according to its website. Vienna also is the site of Grand Central Mall, which has more than 100 stores, restaurants and specialty shops. In Mineral Wells, five miles south of Parkersburg on Interstate 77, the Coldwater Creek Outlet offers discounts on women’s clothes made by the national catalog company.
But the main attraction in Parkersburg is its history. The city’s Julia-Ann Square Historic District is the largest and oldest historic district in West Virginia. Visitors may join Christmas home tours in December and garden tours in June or tour on their own by downloading information from the Julia-Ann Square YouTube channel. The historic district includes about 126 homes in the Victorian, Second Empire, 19th Century Eclectic and Queen Anne styles of architecture. Most were built between 1850 and 1910 with money from Parkersburg’s booming oil and gas industry.
Visitors can learn more about local industrial and Civil War history at the Oil and Gas Museum, at 119 Third Street. The first major wells were drilled in the nearby community of Petroleum in 1859. The wealth made from the area’s shallow wells was instrumental in underwriting the statehood movement, according to historians at the museum, which is open daily.
Parkersburg also has a 1,700-square-foot museum at 1829 Seventh Street honoring veterans from World War I to the present. The Veterans Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley is open Monday through Saturday but is closed in January.
Civil War buffs will not want to miss Henderson Hall in Williamstown, 14 miles from Parkersburg, off State Route 14. The pre-Civil War Italianate-style plantation home overlooks the Ohio River and sits on a tract of more than 2,500 acres. It contains many period furnishings and is open to the public on weekends.
Another Civil War site is Fort Boreman Historical Park, two miles from downtown Parkersburg off U.S. 50. It has a partially reconstructed Union fortification, trenches and interpretive signs, picnic shelters and nature trails. There are also great views of Parkersburg and both the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers.
About 12 miles east of Parkersburg on U.S. 50 is yet another park with a historic past: Mountwood Park. In the 1850s, the oil and gas boom town Volcano stood where Mountwood Park is today. A fire in 1879 fire destroyed the town. The mansion owned by the town’s founder escaped the blaze, but after his death in 1896, it fell into ruins, and materials from it were scavenged during the Great Depression. Today, the 2,600-acre park contains 50 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, campgrounds, picnic areas and a 50-acre lake.
Parkersburg’s numerous other parks include Parkersburg City Park on Park Avenue between 18th and 23rd streets; Southwood Park at 2000 Belmont Road; and Quincy Park at 1000 Quincy Street, offering various combinations of swimming, miniature golf, horseshoe courts, tennis, basketball, picnic shelters and playgrounds. McDonough Wildlife Refuge in the nearby town of Vienna has hiking trails and duck marshes. The parks are open dawn to dusk.
The North Bend Rail Trail travels 72 rural miles through 13 tunnels and several historic sites from Parkersburg to Clarksburg, roughly along U.S. 50. Visitors can use mountain bikes, horses, horse-drawn carriage, or simply walk along the path of a former CSX spur built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between 1853 and 1857.
North Bend State Park is at Cairo, 22 miles east of Parkersburg, accessible via U.S. 50. The 2,400-acre park offers a lodge, cabins, campgrounds, restaurant, nature center, miniature golf, outdoor pool, tennis and lake with fishing and boating. There are numerous special events throughout the year.
For more information about Parkersburg visit www.parkersburgcvb.org.
Written by Jennifer Bundy
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