If you haven’t been to Fort Boreman Historical Park, you are missing out on one of the truly beautiful locations in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Maybe the most beautiful. The views are nothing short of spectacular. From the main lookout spot, you can look one way and see all of downtown Parkersburg laid out in front of you. In the other direction, you can see as far as one of the area’s other major attractions, Blennerhassett Island. And in between, two rivers stretching off into infinity, filled with pleasure craft of nearly every size and description, paddle-wheelers ferrying folks from the Point to the Island, and the unavoidable tugboats, many still laden with coal-filled barges. And the park itself is just plain lovely, boasting green space everywhere, a small playground, picnic shelters, and a great new hiking trail.
But what do you know about the history of the location? I must admit that I didn’t know as much as I thought when I set out to write this article. I knew why the fort was built—to protect the railroad and bridge during the Civil War—but there’s so much more than that. Some fascinating, some mundane, and some just a bit gruesome, events tied to the hill stretch out through history almost as far as the rivers stretch away from the scenic overlook.
According to the website for the Greater Parkersburg Visitors and Convention Bureau, no one knows for sure when the area now known as Fort Boreman Hill was first occupied by humans, but a picture appeared in the magazine Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of a promontory containing a Native American burial mound. Other than saying it was near Blennerhassett Island, the exact location isn’t given, but local historian C. R. Rector claimed the picture was of Fort Boreman Hill.
About all that is known of the hill before it became the location of the fort is that the hillside was forested, with many of the logs floated across the Little Kanawha River and used to build the city’s first official courthouse. In 1820, the land where the park now sits was purchased by a local man named Francis Beckwith for the grand price of 25 cents an acre. He dubbed it Mount Logan and the land remained in his family for just over a century.
The time when the hill became part of the public’s consciousness was obviously when its location made it of strategic importance during the Civil War. According to local historian Bob Enoch, in his article, “Fort Boreman,” construction began in 1863 and it was named after the state’s first governor, Parkersburg native Arthur I. Boreman. The reasons the location was chosen were that it was at the confluence of the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers, so it could be used as a lookout for a great distance, and the five cannons that were eventually placed there could be used to deter Confederate raiding parties that were successfully blowing up tracks and trestles all along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a major supply line for the Union army. Enoch says that the cannons were never used in battle, but that was almost certainly because they served as enough of a deterrent to keep the Confederates away. Interestingly, there’s no consensus as to the shape of the fort itself. Some historical documents claim it was triangular in shape, while others say it was five-sided. What is known is that it contained barracks enough for the 150 men of the 11th West Virginia Regiment (originally known as the 11th Virginia) and a powder house. It was protected by two parallel zig-zagging lines of trenches in a semi-circle around the hill.
After the war, the army abandoned the site, though it was used for several years after as an unofficial park by folks in the region because of its lovely views. But with no one to maintain it, nature took it back and it fell into disuse for several decades until 1927, when the Nemesis Temple bought much of the land and developed it into a park again, complete with a dance hall. For reasons that no one seems to know, the area was abandoned once again in the 1940s and remained untouched, except to be used as an illegal dump site, until 1997, when local historians approached the Wood County Commission with the idea of turning it into a park once again. This proposal became reality in 2006, when Fort Boreman Park officially opened. It is now also on the National Register of Historic Places.
As I said, some of the history is somewhat gruesome. There are three dark marks on the story of the land. First, when the fort was dedicated in August of 1863, one of the cannons that were fired during the ceremony exploded, killing a soldier. Second, the hill near the fort was the site of a “pest house” for the mushrooming number of smallpox patients that were attributed to the hundreds of troops that were bivouacked there over its brief two-year history. And finally, the story of the hanging tree may be the blackest moment in the history of the hill. This story is associated with the murder of a local southern sympathizer named Abram Deem. The murder took place in 1864; three men, two local and all three northern leaning men, were convicted. They were hanged from a tree near the fort and the events (two were hanged initially and then the third several months later) were quite popular, with thousands turning out to view them.
This history doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story of Fort Boreman Hill and the park. If you would like to learn more, the two main sources I used were the Greater Parkersburg Visitors and Convention Bureau’s website, www.greaterparkersburg.com and local historian Bob Enoch’s article, which can be found on e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Fort Boreman. (2015). Retrieved June 24, 2016, from http://www.greaterparkersburg.com/things-to-do/history-heritage/fort-boreman/
Enoch, Bob “Fort Boreman.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 24 February 2011. Web. 23 June 2016.