PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A long-sought artifact of Blennerhassett history has found its way back home to Parkersburg, over 200 years after leaving the Mid-Ohio Valley.
Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park officials and the Friends of Blennerhassett volunteer support group held a special reception Saturday at the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in downtown Parkersburg to unveil the museum’s newest acquisition – a telescope once owned by Harman Blennerhassett.
Ray Swick, the park’s retired historian, said museum officials have long been interested in finding out what happened to the telescope. It was one of Harman Blennerhassett’s most prized possessions, along with a variety of scientific equipment he brought to the island on the Ohio River at Parkersburg between 1798 and 1806.
His collection included a chemical laboratory, the second one known to have been brought to the Ohio Valley, equipment for experimenting with electricity and devices to experiment with magnetism.
The telescope was probably purchased in 1795 or 1796 in London as he was preparing to move to America, Swick said. The manufacturer’s name and London address are engraved on the telescope’s optical tube. In his mansion on the island, a roof platform was build over the central section where he would often use the telescope to view the night sky, Swick said.
After Blennerhassett was forced to leave the island in 1806 due to his involvement with Aaron Burr, knowledge of the telescope was sketchy for nearly a century. It was sold at one of two forced sales of the property held in 1807 at the insistence of Blennerhassett’s creditors, Swick said.
Around 1820, a Philadelphia man named George M. Justice, “a gentleman of scientific attainments and of considerable repute as an astronomer,” purchased it from an unknown person who had bid on it at one of the 1807 auctions, Swick said.
In 1902, Justice’s grandson, a Buffalo, N.Y., businessman named William G. Justice lent and later donated the telescope to the Buffalo Historical Society, whose name later was changed to the Buffalo History Museum. It remained in Buffalo for over a century – unbeknownst to local historians – until an article was published in 2005 and found on the Internet about the piece.
Swick said discussions began in 2005 between the two museums about acquiring the telescope, but little progress was made initially due to the reluctance of most museums to part with items in their collections. Over a year ago, discussions began again with Steven McCarville, the president of the Board of Managers for the Buffalo (New York) History Museum.
As a result of those discussions, the Buffalo History Museum agreed this year to sell the telescope to the Friends of Blennerhassett for permanent exhibition at the Blennerhassett Museum.
McCarville said the Buffalo museum had long known about the telescope’s history, not simply as a 18th Century instrument, but also its provenance – or history of its ownership – since its acquisition in 1902. While there was initial reluctance to part with it by the Buffalo museum, efforts in that direction began moving more strongly in 2015 when he became involved in the process.
The type of exchange or sale which occurred between the museums in Buffalo and Parkersburg is fairly unique, he said.
“Often museums hold on very tightly to their collections and don’t open up their hearts and minds to consider something may be more beneficial in another place. It is an important artifact in our collection, and had been, however this is its rightful home,” he said.
At the time of the telescope’s acquisition in 1902, McCarville said Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the U.S. and was growing and booming in terms of business and culture. The telescope’s age and historical value were important issues in their own right, but there was no direct connection between Buffalo and the Blennerhassetts, he said.
“We don’t have a direct connection to the Blennerhassett story, which is all the more reason that I felt it should be back here,” McCarville said.
Park superintendent Doug Wiant said the acquisition of the telescope is a big accomplishment for the museum and state park which bear the Blennerhassett name.
“To obtain such a delicate piece of history and make it part of our collection is really remarkable,” Wiant said.
Blennerhassett officials said they will be making plans for the telescope’s permanent display in the near future.