Blennerhassett Island’s annual Mansion by Candlelight transports guests to a 19th century soiree.


For those traveling the Ohio River at the turn of the 19th century, Blennerhassett Island must have appeared as if out of a dream.

Travelers would have seen only rugged frontierland and the occasional log cabin for most of their journey downstream. But here, in the middle of the river, sat a miniature Mount Vernon. The effect would have been even greater on those evenings when Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett threw one of their lavish parties, their home’s windows glowing with the light of hundreds of candles and the sounds of music and laughter spilling over the silent river.

The dream did not last long. As anyone who’s studied West Virginia history knows, the Blennerhassetts only lived on the island for about a decade before fleeing, never to return. The mansion burned soon after. Yet the magic lingers, thanks to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park’s annual Mansion by Candlelight event, which returns for its 23rd year on October 12 and 13, 2018.

Back to Life
For visitors, the event begins in Belpre, Ohio, where they board the Island Belle sternwheeler that will take them to the island. “Once they leave the shoreline, they can see in the distance the light on the island. As they draw closer and closer to it, they can see the flicker of the candles,” says Pam Salisbury, the park’s activities coordinator. “I can’t even describe how pretty it is.”

Once they have landed, guests walk up a candle-lined path to the mansion. Docents dressed as Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett meet them at the front door and welcome them to their home. Inside, the opulent rooms are decorated for a party, the ladies sparkle in bright silks and tapestries, and the men sport top hats, long tails, and white gloves. Dancers twirl in the main room of the first floor, accompanied by a musician playing the harpsichord. Upstairs, guests can eavesdrop on a card game and peek in on a servant tending a baby in one of the bedchambers.

Then, there are candles—more than 400 in the house alone. “It just warms the room and it warms the inside of you. You’re just mesmerized by the light,” Salisbury says.

On their way out of the party, visitors make their way down the house’s back steps to the summer kitchen, located on the house’s south wing. There they can see servants working in the kitchen and hear old-timey tavern songs belted by a pair of “salty dogs,” river men spending the night at Blennerhassett Island on their way downstream.

As part of their admission, guests receive a horse-drawn carriage ride around the upper half of island. They can also purchase additional tickets for the harvest supper, served at the island’s covered picnic shelter.

But one of the most popular attractions of Mansion by Candlelight happens a little ways down the path from the house. There, guests will find the Blennerhassetts’ servants around a bonfire. “Down at the bonfire, there’s a different kind of party going on,” Salisbury says. There’s storytelling, clogging, fiddlers and pickers performing rowdy folk tunes, even a couple fortune tellers. And, if you hang around long enough, you might see a ghostly visage wander past.

Each year, a docent portrays Margaret Blennerhassett’s ghost. “We have brought this mansion and island back to life, so she is back to oversee the party just like she would have in 1805,” Salisbury says. “It’s really cool, especially if you’ve got a full moon—it shines down on this white iridescent fabric and it just glows.”

‘It’s Magic’
It takes more than 80 volunteer docents to pull off each year’s Mansion by Candlelight. Some come with their own costumes, but the rest are dressed by the park. The costume closet includes outfits donated by retired docents and others from a production of “Eden on the River,” a historic musical once performed on the island. “They’re just beautiful, so we keep using them,” says K.T. Stephens, a longtime Blennerhassett Island docent who is now in charge of costuming for the event.

Mansion by Candlelight has now hosted visitors from every state in the union and draws history lovers of all ages. One year, Salisbury met a mom, dad, and their two preteen sons. The boys had visited the island as part of a school field trip, heard about the event, and begged their parents to buy tickets. “Those kids, when they opened that front door and saw those candelabras, you could see their faces light up. And their parents, you could tell, thought ‘I see what they were talking about,’” Salisbury says.

Stephens’ favorite part of the event comes toward the end of the night. The evening begins at 5 p.m. but, depending on how long visitors linger, sometimes doesn’t end until midnight. The candles aren’t extinguished until the last guest has left the island. “When you go, it’s daylight. When the boat pulls away, it’s gotten dark and all you see is these lanterns and fire pits,” Stephens says. “It’s magic.”

Blennerhassett Island’s Mansion by Candlelight will be held rain or shine on October 12 and 13. Reservations are available until the first boats leave at 5 p.m. Tickets are $35 for adults and $25 for children ages 3 to 12. The optional harvest dinner costs $15 per person.

304.420.4800, blennerhassettislandsp@wv.gov, wvstateparks.com/park/blennerhassett-island-historical-state-park

 

photographed by Carla Witt Ford

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Zack Harold
Written by Zack Harold
Zack Harold is a southern West Virginia native. He covered education, health, and government at the Charleston Daily Mail before becoming the newspaper’s features editor. He joined New South Media in 2015, became managing editor of WV Living in January 2016, and took over as managing editor of Wonderful West Virginia in July 2016.