Living in Parkersburg
Outdoor enthusiasts, art patrons, and history buffs alike will find West Virginia’s third largest city the ideal spot to visit—or even call home.
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“Parkersburg has a wonderful story to tell. Many of our attractions are intertwined with significant periods in American history,” says Steve Nicely, executive director of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We offer a great community to escape to and unwind; a place to discover something old and new; and the great outdoors to play in.”
Located at the confluence of the Ohio and the Little Kanawha rivers, Parkersburg is West Virginia’s third largest city. It’s motto, “Where West Virginia Began,” takes on special meaning as the country celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In 1863, Parkersburg native Arthur I. Boreman became the newly formed state’s first governor. He called West Virginia “The Child of the Rebellion.”
Today, Parkersburg celebrates its heritage with an eye to the future. It has a vibrant arts community, an incredible array of outdoor recreational activities, and a devoted community of business leaders and patrons, making it a prime destination for tourists and for those who are looking to relocate to a smaller community with big city amenities.
From the onset of the Civil War, Parkersburg’s location at the terminus of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and the Northwestern Turnpike and on the mainline of the B&O Railroad made it a major troop transfer and supply center. Union General George McClellan made his headquarters in Parkersburg. The Federal government built a fort on Mount Logan with a sweeping view of the city and the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers, naming it Fort Boreman.
After the war, the area found itself at the epicenter of a booming oil and gas industry. The barons who made their fortunes built magnificent homes in Julia-Ann Square. Today, walking tours reveal impeccably preserved examples of Colonial Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Victorian architecture.
The early oil and gas industry was a vital part of Parkersburg’s growth, and its gritty, yet fascinating, history can be explored at the Oil & Gas Museum. The nationally recognized facility includes expanded displays on the Civil War and local industries. Another interesting museum is The Veterans Museum of Mid-Ohio Valley, which contains rare displays and artifacts that honor veterans from World War I to the present.
Among the city’s most prized historical landmarks is Smoot Theatre located downtown. Rescued from impending demolition in 1989, the former 1926 vaudeville house is a thriving venue and a true favorite among visitors and locals for live entertainment. Kari Thompson, who was born, raised, and spent most of her life in Parkersburg, has very fond memories of the Smoot. “I watched my first movie there with my feet dangling over a cushion seat and a bag of buttery popcorn under one arm.” Thirty years later, Kari feels fortunate to volunteer as an usher at the Smoot and has fallen in love all over again. “I love to usher and watch generations of families attend shows. Art deco architecture, two-tier balcony seating, real hardwood stage—it’s a very special treasure for Parkersburg. A live performance in that type of setting is a rare and very personable experience.”
Another must-see stop is The Parkersburg Art Center—a colorful, vibrant hub of the area arts scene that brings local and national talent to the area through ongoing shows and events. Founded in 1938 by the Parkersburg Woman’s Club, it is the oldest arts organization in continuous operation in West Virginia. Located on Market Street in a building that once housed a Montgomery Ward Department Store, its 36,000 square-feet is put to good use with seven galleries, several classrooms, a ballroom, a clay lab, a playroom, and a computer lab—all ADA compliant.
“The jewel in our crown is our summer program for children. It is an incredible interactive hands-on experience for kids of all ages, beginning at 18 months old,” says Director Abby Hayhurst. Giving children tools to express themselves through the arts is one of the Center’s goals. In fact, one of the galleries is called The Art Factory Gallery and is dedicated to student artwork from area schools.
The Art Center has embraced the community and provided affordable entertainment for families and a place to rent for private occasions. Abby says, “We knew that it was impossible to be just an art center. We are also a community center—a community center with ever-changing wallpaper.”
Also located in the Art Center is a fantastic gift shop called Zocolo, which means “marketplace” in Spanish, that offers an eclectic blend of art, creative toys, greeting cards, pottery, clothing, and other merchandise created by local artisans.
Across the street from the Art Center is the Actors Guild of Parkersburg, a top-notch community theater. “One thing that is nice about Parkersburg is that all of our arts organizations work together—we don’t compete with each other,” says Abby. “Instead of trying to chip away at resources, we try to expand the pot by planning programming together.”
Without a doubt, no visit to Parkersburg would be complete without a visit to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park. Open from May 1 through October, the tawdry, treasonous, and tantalizing story of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett is captured by costumed docents in this island paradise, where in 1806, Harman was involved in a scandalous military enterprise with Aaron Burr and was accused of treason by President Thomas Jefferson. Today, an authentic sternwheeler ferries visitors to the island (catch the ferry from Civitan Park in Belpre, Ohio, right across the river) for tours of the mansion (rebuilt on the original foundation), horse-drawn wagon rides, garden tours, picnics, and bicycle rentals. “Lush black walnut groves, long beaches, and broad fields add to the charm of the island,” says Melanie See, who works at The Blennerhassett Gift Shop. “The vegetation and topography provide a habitat for a large white-tailed deer population, throngs of waterfowl, and other birds. It is enchanting.”
Henderson Hall is another historic attraction that is located right outside of town. An 8,000-square-foot, pre-Civil War mansion, Henderson Hall is the stunning crown jewel of what was once a thriving 2,600-acre plantation, horse breeding farm, oilfield, and river port. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district unto itself. The imposing 29-room Italianate mansion contains an extensive and remarkably pristine collection of original furnishings, art, and artifacts spanning six generations and 200 years of the prominent Henderson family.