When it comes to towns in West Virginia, almost all of them are what most of us would consider a “small town.” (In fact, no city in West Virginia has a population of more than 50,000 people!)
And as someone who has a real soft spot for small towns (and especially small, historic towns), the only logical answer was “yes” when the West Virginia Department of Tourism invited me to come down and explore the city of Parkersburg, population: under 30,000.
An intro to Parkersburg, West Virginia
Situated at the confluence of the Little Kanawha and Ohio rivers, Parkersburg sits just across the state line from Ohio and has a long and interesting history.
This area was originally home to Indigenous peoples of the Osage, Delaware, Shawnee, and other Ohio Valley tribes. These groups were largely forced out as European settlers began to move westward following the American Revolution.
The town that would become Parkersburg was settled around 1785 on a tract of land originally purchased by a man named Alexander Parker. It was named “Newport” first, but the name was changed to Parkersburg in 1810.
At that point in time, the town was in the Commonwealth of Virginia. West Virginia did not exist yet as a state (that would happen after a series of three Wheeling Conventions in 1861, when delegates from present-day West Virginia met and decided they didn't want to stick with Virginia as it seceded from the Union; it became a state in 1863).
Parkersburg played an important role in transportation and shipping in its early years. Along with being right on the Ohio River, the city was also the western terminus of both the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and the Northwestern Turnpike, and was connected to the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad by 1857.
When West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863, it became a border state between the Union and Confederacy. Parkersburg played a role as a transport and medical hub for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, Parkersburg saw its biggest boom as a major fixture in the gas and oil industry. The area became an important oil refining center – you can still visit the nation's oldest oil fields in nearby Burning Springs, which is home to one of the oldest producing oil wells in the world.
Today, Parkersburg is still an industrial center, producing things like chemicals and polymers. But it's also turning to tourism thanks to its unique ties to American history and heritage AND its proximity to West Virginia's outdoor spaces.
It was these last two things – history and the outdoors – that ultimately sold me on a visit to Parkersburg. My husband Elliot and I spent four days in Parkersburg, ticking all the must-dos off our list.
Note: This post is brought to you as part of a paid partnership with the West Virginia Department of Tourism and the Greater Parkersburg CVB. But, as always, all opinions are 100% my own and based on my personal experiences!
How to get to Parkersburg
Parkersburg makes for a great road trip stop, whether you're on a West Virginia road trip, an Ohio Valley road trip, or an even longer one through Appalachia, the Mid-Atlantic, or the Midwest.
The best way to get here is by car, and the city is roughly 3 hours from either Cleveland or Pittsburgh, 2.5 hours from Columbus, and 5.5 hours from Washington, DC.
It's right along I-77, which runs north-south all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Columbia, South Carolina.
Historic things to do in Parkersburg
If you read through the above section about the history of Parkersburg, then you might guess that there's a lot to learn about in this small town!
If you're a history buff like me, then here are some of the things you won't want to miss in Parkersburg:
1. Visit Blennerhassett Island
The most popular thing to do in Parkersburg is to visit Blennerhassett Island, a relatively large (500+ acres) island sitting in the middle of the Ohio River.
The island was originally home to Indigenous peoples (Nemacolin, leader of the Delaware tribe, died here in 1767) until European settlers displaced them as settlement moved westward into the Ohio Valley and Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War.
Back then, the island was known as Backus Island, after Elijah Backus who purchased it in 1792. Its most famous resident would come to the island around 1798: Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy lawyer from Ireland who was more or less forced to immigrate to the US due to his political ties and a rather scandalous decision to marry his 14-year-old niece.
The Blennerhassetts built a large mansion and farm on the island, but it wasn’t long before Harman – historically known for having more money than common sense – got caught up in yet more drama.
In 1805, Aaron Burr (yes, THAT Aaron Burr) showed up and convinced Harman Blennerhassett to help fund what would eventually be known as the “Burr Conspiracy.”
In short, Burr wanted to raise a militia (which they started doing on the island), build ships (which they also started doing), and then head to the Southwest to start his own empire. This potentially treasonous plot was eventually foiled, with both Burr and Blennerhassett being arrested.
Today, the island is a state park (Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park), and visitors can tour a replica of the Blennerhassett mansion (the original burned down in 1811), go on a horse-drawn wagon tour of the island and its walnut groves, or just enjoy a picnic.
Getting to Blennerhassett Island is in itself a cool experience, as you have to ride a historic sternwheeler riverboat called the Island Belle. Be sure to listen to the narration on the way over to learn the family story of the Blennerhassetts.
When: The island is open daily May-October each year.
How much: Tickets to get to Blennerhassett Island cost $12 for adults and $8 for children, and include the sternwheeler ride from Point Park in Parkersburg. Once you're on the island, you can purchase additional tickets for things like the mansion tour ($5), a narrated wagon ride ($8), or rent a bike for $4 per hour.
2. Tour Henderson Hall
A short drive from downtown Parkersburg along the Ohio River will find you at Henderson Hall, an incredibly well-preserved former plantation home.
The Hendersons were important figures in Virginia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; Henderson brothers Alexander and John actually played a role in thwarting Aaron Burr's plans, as they're the ones who let Thomas Jefferson know what Burr and Blennerhassett were up to over on the island.
Henderson Hall was built by another Henderson, George Washington Henderson, in 1859. GW Henderson studied law, and served on the Wheeling Convention in 1861 (which would eventually lead to West Virginia becoming a state). He and his family definitely owned enslaved people, but the family in Parkersburg stayed loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War.
What's interesting about Henderson Hall is that it's been meticulously preserved; it seems as though the Henderson family never got rid of anything through the generations, which means that the home is filled with original furniture, artwork, and clothing. You can even see the original land deed signed by Patrick Henry.
You can tour the 29-room mansion and the grounds (together designated as the Henderson Hall Historic District), which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
When: The home is open for tours Tuesday-Sunday from noon-5 p.m. from March-December.
How much: Tickets to visit the house and grounds are $10 for adults and $5 for kids. Be sure to watch the intro video upstairs about the family, and spend time on the grounds (don't miss the prehistoric Adena Indian mounds!). Tours of the house are self-guided, and photos are not permitted inside (I got special permission so I could share with you).
3. Take a stroll through Julia-Ann Square
Speaking of historic districts in Parkersburg, you won't want to miss visiting the Julia-Ann Square Historic District.
This neighborhood in Parkersburg is punctuated by brick streets and stunning mansions, most of them dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when West Virginia's oil and gas barons made this area home. There are more than 120 homes in this historic district, most built in the Victorian and Queen Anne style.
Julia-Ann Square is the largest and oldest historic district in West Virginia, and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.
You can take a self-guided walking tour around this neighborhood any day of the week. Try to pick up a guide booklet before you go – some hotels have them, or you can get one at the CVB Visitor Center at 350 7th Street. Greater Parkersburg also has this walking tour guide online; the Julia-Ann Square section starts at #18.
The district also hosts a garden tour in the spring, and a Christmas home tour in December where you can actually enter some of the homes.
4. Visit Fort Boreman Park
Since West Virginia became a border state during the Civil War and Parkersburg an important Union outpost, it should be no surprise that the city built some fortifications during the war.
What's left of the city's 1863 fort can be seen at Fort Boreman Park, which is located on a hilltop overlooking the city and Ohio River. From here, Union troops could protect the waterway and the B&O Railroad bridge and terminal.
Today, there's a scenic overlook area with some historic plaques, and you can walk up the hill to see some old cannons. The Fort Boreman site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
5. Visit a museum
For a relatively small city, Parkersburg boasts several unique museums you can visit. My top picks would include:
- Oil & Gas Museum – Most people (me included) usually associate West Virginia with the coal industry, but it was really the oil and gas industry that molded the state's early history. Visit this museum to learn about the birth and evolution of the oil and gas industry, as well as its impact on the Civil War. (Open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids)
- Blennerhassett Museum – This is where you can buy your tickets to visit Blennerhassett Island, but the museum itself focuses more on the history of Parkersburg than that fated family. The must-see exhibit here is on the lower level, where you can see tons of Native American artifacts, many of which have been found on Blennerhassett Island.
- Parkersburg Art Center – This contemporary art museum is in downtown Parkersburg and features works by both regional and national artists.
BONUS: Cross the river into Marietta
I know, I know, this is a post about Parkersburg. But Parkersburg is just a short drive away from Marietta, another historic town on the other side of the Ohio River.
If you have extra time, there are also some unique historic spots in Marietta like the Campus Martius Museum (a museum about the Northwest Territory), the Ohio River Museum, the Castle Historic House Museum, Mound Cemetery, and more.
Outdoorsy things to do in Parkersburg
While history and heritage is reason enough to make a stop in Parkersburg, the region is also filled with lots of opportunities to get out and enjoy nature and the outdoors.
With the Ohio River literally right on its doorstep and more than 82,000 acres of nearby parks and public lands, you'd be remiss if you visited Parkersburg and only spent your time in historic districts and museums.
Here are just a few of the outdoor things to do in and around Parkersburg:
1. Enjoy views of the Ohio River
Don't skip taking an afternoon or evening stroll down to Point Park, the city park on the Ohio River. Here you can relax on giant swings and watch the river traffic go by.
Point Park also has a small open-air waterfront amphitheater where you can sometimes catch live music, as well as a large mural currently going up on the Parkersburg flood wall.
2. Ride the North Bend Rail Trail
The North Bend Rail Trail is a multi-use trail that stretches 72 miles across the northern part of West Virginia. The trail is built on a former railroad line route, meaning it's relatively flat and features several cool bridges and tunnels.
Elliot and I rode about 9 miles on the rail trail one morning, and found it to be such an enjoyable bike ride. The trail is mostly shaded, so even in the summer it's a comfortable outdoor activity.
The North Bend Rail Trail is geared towards people who have their own bikes, but if you need to rent some you can do so at North Bend State Park. (North Bend Outfitters offers bike rentals starting at $12 for 2 hours.)
3. Kayak or fish on North Bend Lake
Speaking of North Bend Outfitters, you can also rent kayaks and canoes from them and go out on North Bend Lake, a 305-acre lake that's perfect for a relaxing morning paddle.
This lake is popular with fishermen (many of the rental kayaks are even equipped for fishing – just be sure to bring your WV fishing license), but we were happy to just go for a quiet float. If you go in the morning, you can expect extra calm, mirror-like water.
Birds like woodpeckers and even bald eagles can often be spotted from the water here, too.
4. Go wild at Mountwood Park
If you're looking for slightly more adrenaline, you can check out Mountwood Park, which has both single-track mountain biking trails and an ATV park.
The River Valley Mountain Bike Association has created nearly 30 miles of single-track trails at Mountwood, which are regarded to be some of the best in the eastern United States. The trails are also open year-round.
Along with the ATV park, Mountwood also offers nature trails, a disc golf course, an archery range, and more.
Where to stay in Parkersburg
When it comes to where to stay in Parkersburg, there's really only one answer: the Blennerhassett Hotel on Market Street.
While the hotel doesn't really have ties to the Blennerhassett family, it IS one of the oldest and most historic hotels in West Virginia.
The Blennerhassett Hotel was built by Colonel William Nelson Chancellor (then-mayor of Parkersburg), and opened its doors in 1889. This was in the middle of the oil and gas boom, and the grand hotel was meant to host the businessmen and millionaires of the day (which it did).
Like most historic hotels, this one has gone through periods of disrepair, damage (including a fire in 1979), and renewal – it was most recently renovated in the early 2000s, but still retains its historic charm.
Along with large guest rooms, the hotel has a really nice bar, several lounge areas, and a European-inspired patio that was my favorite place we had dinner.
If you're curious about the history of the hotel, they also offer one-hour guided history tours at 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Where to eat in Parkersburg
Whether you're coming to Parkersburg for a quick overnight trip or a long weekend like we did, here are some of the best places to grab a meal:
- Unity Cafe (coffee and crepes)
- Third Street Deli (great lunch spot)
- Chams Lebanese Cuisine (highly-recommended international spot)
- The Blennerhassett Restaurant & Lounge (sit on the patio if you can)
- The Cocktail Bar (yes it's a bar, but they also serve up really good food)
- Parkersburg Brewing Co (go for local beer, or for dinner)
- North End Tavern & Brewery (a popular local haunt)
And a stop at Holl's Chocolates should also be on your to-do list to pick up some delicious Swiss chocolates from a family-run shop.
There you have it: everything you need to know to plan a weekend trip or road trip stop in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Is Parkersburg a place you think you'd like to visit?