Thursday, December 1, 2022

HGB Ep. 463 - Blennerhassett Hotel

The Moment in Oddity - Sax During Surgery

Some of us may find surgery based television shows fascinating, others of us may cringe at the sight of a scalpel and human flesh. Brain surgery is clearly a very touchy situation. Undoubtedly, anyone who needs brain surgery would want the most talented surgeons available. In the following case, the surgeons probably also wanted a talented musician. Recently in Rome's Paideia (pay-dee-uh) International Hospital, a team of 10 brain surgeons worked on their 35 year old patient as he performed various songs on his saxophone. Yes listeners, this patient was fully awake during the nine hours of surgery. According to the surgeons, "awake surgery", performed with a local anesthesia, allows the surgeons to map with extreme precision, the neuronal networks that control the various brain functions. With this particular patient, the surgeons studied the music that would be played prior to the surgery. This meant that any wrong note or too long of a pause would be recognized by the surgeons, which in turn would indicate that they needed to avoid the area of the brain which they had just stimulated. Every surgery of this sort is different. Some patients will answer questions, read a book aloud, sing or play an instrument. The surgeons try to tailor each surgery to the individual patient as much as possible. In the case of the saxophonist, his operation was difficult due to his left-handedness which mapped his brain structure differently than a right-handed person. Thankfully his surgery was a success and he was able to go home to his wife and children just three days later. Although playing a saxophone while undergoing brain surgery is nothing short of miraculous, some may say, it certainly is odd.  

This Month in History - Christopher Columbus Arrives in Hispaniola

In December, on the 5th, in 1492, the first Europeans arrived on the island of Hispaniola, guided by explorer Christopher Columbus. The island is today home to two countries known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is located in the Greater Antilles archipelago of the Caribbean Sea. The Italian explorer had originally thought he had found India or China. Columbus founded the first European settlement on the island when his flagship the Santa Maria sank after hitting a coral reef on Christmas day in the same month. This occurred on the Haitian side of the island. The ship was dismantled to use the timbers for Fort Navidad, or Christmas Fort. This was built in a native Taino (Tay-know) village. The fort was the first Spanish settlement in the New World. However, by November of the next year when Christopher Columbus returned to the island, the fort had been burned. Later, Columbus built a settlement further east in present-day Dominican Republic and named it La Isabela after Queen Isabella.

Blennerhassett Hotel (Suggested by listener: Rylee Burkman)

The Blennerhassett Hotel is the oldest hotel in West Virginia and is located in Parkersburg. The hotel was named for a couple who first settled the nearby Blennerhassett Island. Their story is one mired in political persecution, scandal and conspiracy. They eventually were forced to flee the area, but their name remains an imprint here. The hotel became a place for the millionaires of the time to find lodging. On opening day in 1889, the hotel featured both gas and electricity. Today, the hotel still offers elegant accommodations with modern amenities and a few ghosts. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Blennerhassett Hotel.

The area that became Parkersburg and the nearby Blennerhassett Island, was first settled by an indigenous group that left behind artifacts dating to 3,000 years ago. The Delaware Nation was also here, led by Chief Nemacolin, who widened a path through the Appalachian mountains with two of his sons to allow for westward expansion. Chief Nemacolin died on Blennerhassett Island in 1767. Settlers first came to the area after the American Revolutionary War from Virginia. They were looking to get closer to the ocean and they named their settlement Newport. The location was favorable too because it was at the confluence of the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers. The land was originally a grant to Alexander Parker for his service during the war. In 1810, the town officially was named Parkersburg. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad arrived in the town in 1857. During the Civil War, Parkersburg was a transportation and medical center for Union forces. The late 19th century had Parkersburg transforming into a major oil refining center after an oil and gas boom. In 1883, construction on the Blennerhassett Hotel was started. This hotel was built by Colonel William Nelson Chancellor, who was a banker and eventually became mayor of Parkersburg. He had started as a bank teller and worked his way up until he was President of the local bank.

Chancellor wanted to build a hotel for the rich and he wanted it to be the best hotel in the state of West Virginia. Construction took six years to complete and the hotel was built in the Queen Anne architectural style and stood five stories. Electricity came to the city in 1888 and Chancellor had the hotel wired. The electricity was generated by natural gas and the hotel also featured steam heating. No expense was spared on the interior. Fresco works were in different areas of the lobby and two companies were hired to do the window treatments. The Bentley and Gerwig Furniture Company provided all the furnishings in the hotel. Guests could get to the upper levels via an electric elevator and there was an electric service elevator as well. There was also a central staircase in the lobby that led up all five stories. Another luxury for guests was that each of the 50 guest rooms had a private bathroom. Every floor featured public bathrooms as well. The second floor featured a common area for people to gather with two double parlors. One of the parlors had a piano. There was a restaurant on the second floor as well, but the kitchen was actually on the fifth floor just in case a fire started, so it would be easier for people to exit the hotel before the fire worked its way down. And then there is this interesting tidbit: There was a large and beautiful mirror in the lobby that had a wire cage built around it. The cage was there to protect the mirror from stray bullets. Was this an issue in Parkersburg, West Virginia? Stray bullets flying in from the street?  

Another unique feature of the hotel is that Chancellor had his bank inside it and this was reached via an entrance on the corner of Fourth and Market Streets. The bank remained in the hotel until the 1910s and then the bank entrance became the hotel's main entrance. The hotel opened on May 6, 1889, but it wasn't Chancellor who ran it. He just built it. George C. Campbell leased the hotel as the first proprietor and he is the one who named the hotel. Campbell at first wanted to name it Hotel Argyle, but then he finally landed on The Hotel Blennerhassett. This was in line with the nearby Blennerhassett Island, which was named for Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. Harman was an Anglo-Irish lawyer and aristocrat who was born in England and raised in Ireland. he attended school in London and eventually joined a secret society there known as the Society of United Irishmen in 1793. This was a group that supported an Irish republic and through the years became militantly radical. An uprising was put down and the United Kingdom parliament at Westminster followed in its wake.

Harman married Margaret Agnew who was his sister's daughter, which we're pretty sure makes her his niece. This was considered in defiance of religious and societal values at the time, so this wasn't something that was just done in 1794. The following year they immigrated to America, landing in New York City first. They moved on to Pennsylvania and then Ohio and finally settled on 174 acres on an island two miles below Parkersburg that had belonged to George Washington. They built their 7,000 square foot Blennerhassett Mansion in 1798. One of the people who visited their grand home was former vice president Aaron Burr. Harman and Burr started working on a conspiracy to undertake a military expedition to the Southwest where they would found a new country. In 1806, the authorities heard about the plan and decided to raid the mansion, but not before Harman and Burr escaped down the river. Right before the bust Margaret, who had been away, arrived home with the kids. Margaret begged the militia not to destroy the home, but it was ransacked and Margaret ran away with the children. Eventually, Harman and Burr were arrested, tried and eventually freed, but not before Harman lost all his money. The family didn't return to the island until Harman and Margaret were buried there in 1996. Their grand mansion had burned to the ground, but the state government rebuilt it in the 1980s and turned the island into a historical state park. Margaret Blennerhassett is said to haunt the island that she loved. Her ghostly figure walks the shoreline. Some have seen her with a young daughter who died on the island and was buried on the island.

William Chancellor's grandson became the next proprietor of the hotel and he implemented the first major renovation of the hotel in 1944. The lobby floor was changed into a terrazzo one and a marble facade was added to the outside. In 1960, Robert Huck became the new proprietor and under his management, Senator John F. Kennedy stayed at the hotel while campaigning for the Presidency throughout West Virginia. He stayed there twice in May of 1960 in Suite 216, which was the largest in the hotel at the time. Teddy and Bobby stayed with him on one of those visits. A banquet luncheon was held in honor of Kennedy. The grand hotel lost its luster in the 1970s and eventually became an apartment building for elderly people. A fire erupted in a second floor linen closet and gutted most of the hotel except for the fifth floor on May 9, 1979.

After the fire, the hotel sat vacant and there was real fear that eventually it would be demolished, but some Parkersburg residents joined with some investors to save the hotel and renovate it. This major renovation started in 1985 and went on for nearly a year at a cost of $7 million. A new Ballroom and Promenade were added to the first floor, an Atrium to the third floor with skylights, a Library was added and several new guest rooms bringing that number to 104 rooms for rent. The interior was redesigned to resemble the inside of a Mississippi riverboat with dark stained wainscoting throughout and antiques were incorporated into the decor. They also added a building to the hotel, the Kaltenecker building, which was right next door. This building dates back to the same time as the hotel and has a similar architectural style because the same architect was used.

The Ross Family purchased the hotel in 2002. The Blennerhassett Hotel underwent another renovation beginning in 2002 and this lasted until 2006 with many of the guest rooms being turned into suites, so that there were only 89 rooms. They added a new garden patio area with a portable stage area for outdoor entertainment. The hotel is now under the management of R & W Hotels, which is owned by local businessmen Wayne Waldeck and Lee Eric Rector who bought the hotel in 2019. In 2020, they added Faux tin ceilings to the library and the main lobby and promenade area of the hotel. The original Terrazzo lobby floor was uncovered in the library at this time as well. Two new chandeliers were hung in the lounge and main dining room areas, which came from a home located near the Versace mansion. In 2022, the hotel became "The Blennerhassett Hotel and Spa." The Blennerhassett remains the oldest operating boutique hotel in the state of West Virginia and through the years, the hotel has acquired several spirits.

Like many historic hotels, the elevator in this one is haunted. Many guests claim to see a female ghost enter the elevator and then vanish. One of the people who saw this was a postman bringing a delivery. He was told to get on the elevator and go downstairs. As he approached the elevator, he saw a woman get on and he ran to catch the elevator and put his hand out to stop the doors from closing. He jumped into the elevator and realized he was all alone. There was no woman on the elevator. He later asked an employee if the hotel was haunted. Guests riding the elevator also claim to get rides they aren't expecting.

Another ghost is seen at the door facing Fourth Street. This too is a woman. In 1889, this had been the door to the gentlemen's cigar stand and smoking room. Sherry Stevens, Human Resource Manager at the Blennerhassett Hotel, told Channel 12 that she had seen this spirit. She said, “It was mid-afternoon. I was walking down the sidewalk across the street, and something flashed, and it made me look in [the direction of the door], so I stopped for a second, and I saw a woman looking right at me in [the door] window.” Stevens said she saw the woman twice within a week. She has looked for her since then, but hasn't seen her. The woman she saw was a white woman with an expressionless face and bright red hair and wearing a light blue dress that had a frilly, tall collar and a broach.

Many members of the staff have seen shadow figures down in the basement. These are a wide array of figures with some wearing trench coats, others top hats and some with what looks like fur coats. The main place these figures gravitate to is the laundry room and they are generally seen walking to a staircase at the end of the washing machines that leads to the bellman’s closet in the main lobby. Adam Dotson, who was a Hospitality Guest Services Specialist at the hotel, said he saw a shadow figure walk into his office, which was down in the basement. He was so sure that this was a real person, most likely a server in black clothing, that he went to his office to see what the employee needed and nobody was there.

The Man in a Bowler Hat is one of the most seen ghosts at the hotel. He is seen in the dry storage area in the basement and also in Room 409, which is four floors right above the storage area. This part of the hotel used to be part of The Kaltenecker Building, so people think the ghost is connected to that building. Room 409 is unique in that it is the only two-story suite in the hotel. Guests report hearing the furniture moving around at night and one woman claimed that a man in a bowler hat held her down in bed by her neck one morning. Adam Dotson had an encounter with spirits in Room 409 as well when he was staying in the room right next to the suite, Room 407. He was awakened at night by a party going on in the suite. Dotson told the front desk about the noise and he was informed that he was the only person staying on that floor.

The man who built the hotel, Colonel Chancellor, is seen usually during renovations. He is seen wearing a brown suit with a bushy mustache and monocle and looking thoughtful. He is usually on the second floor in the hallway or in guests' rooms. People have reported to the front desk that they have awakened to find a man staring at them as they slept. He is usually at the foot of the bed. People assume he is just keeping track of how things are going in the hotel. Colonel Chancellor was fond of cigars and the scent of cigars is often detected when he is nearby. There is no smoking in the hotel, but the library has many times been filled with the pungent smell of cigar smoke. Sometimes smoke is even seen hanging in the air. Sometimes the cigar smell is caught wafting through the hallways as well. When people see the picture of the Colonel in the hotel, they will report that he is the spirit that they have seen. And that very picture is said to be haunted as people will see gold lights dancing around it. These have even been captured in photographs. And even stranger are people who claim to have caught a red glow on the end of the Colonel's cigar in the picture. 

The library not only has the haunting scent of cigars, but books often get tossed about, even the old heavy books. One book in particular gets thrown a lot, so the staff have taken to putting a potted plant on the book. Even this doesn't keep it from getting tossed into the walls. The whispering of female voices is heard over the intercom system and sometimes there is even a female scream, followed by laughing. Flapper-style music is heard coming from the Charleston Room and the ballrooms. The chandelier also swings on its own in the Charleston Room and silverware occasionally goes flying. 

There is also the spirit of a little boy here. He is dressed in clothing from the 1920s and looks to be about nine-years-old. A chef saw him standing in the kitchen one night. He did a double take, and when he looked back, the child was gone. This boy has also been seen down in the basement near the staff lounge. He always disappears right after he is spotted. And he's not the only child here because security staff have claimed to hear the disembodied singing of children. One of them said they heard this phantom group of children singing "Jingle Bells" at Christmastime. Also on the second floor, ghostly children play tag in the hall and a bellman said he saw a little girl in a fancy dress on that floor out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look at her, she disappeared around a corner.

The list of ghosts in this place goes on and on. A phantom maid has been seen scrubbing the floor in the lobby wearing a uniform from another era. There is the Four O'clock Knocker who haunts the coffee shop that is located where the front desk used to be. This spirit raps on the wall near the doorway into the office at 4 am. There are usually three loud raps. There is the Kissing Bandit who likes to give female guests little kisses on their faces and lips as they sleep. These women awaken, sit up and then the kissing stops and they are shocked to find that they are all alone in their room. The Red Room gives people a feeling of dread and the doors open and close on their own. People feel like they are being watched here as well.

Another guest reported that he had been awakened in the middle of the night by something depressing the bed as if someone unseen had just sat down. He glanced at the foot of the bed and saw an old man sitting there who upon realizing that he had been seen, scowled and said, "I was here first." The spirit then faded away. The guest promptly packed his bag and checked out, happy to leave the old spirit in the room he apparently was possessive of. 

And then finally there are the haunted mirrors. The Blennerhassett purchased two large and fancy mirrors that had been made from two mirrored door casings from a Victorian-era building that was going to be demolished in New York City. The mirrored doors dated to the Victorian-era. The mirrors were put in the bar and one evening, several bar patrons saw the reflection of a man in a 1920s-style white tuxedo. When they turned to see the man in the tuxedo, they realized that there was no man in the bar wearing those clothes. The other mirror has reflected the image of a sea captain who looked almost to be in black and white, except for his shiny brass buttons.

There are a large number of spirits hanging around this hotel and nobody knows exactly why, other than that the hotel has been here a long time and hosted a lot of history. The hotel hosts its own ghost tours and spirit sessions. Is the Blennerhassett Hotel haunted? That is for you to decide!

The Appalachian ParaCon is going to be hosted at the hotel in March 2023:

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