River rock fight rolls on

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 2, 2008

The Associated Press

SOUTH SHORE, Ky. (AP) — It’s an 8-ton boulder that for decades sat, mostly forgotten, in the middle of the river that separates Ohio and Kentucky. It was a navigation marker for boaters that became the canvas for such fine art as a stick figure-like face with two dots for eyes and a dot for a nose chiseled into it.

Was it marked by Native Americans? Or was it more of an amusement for the people who plastered names on it such as Kinney, D. Ford, F. Ayers and J. White?

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Now, this lowly piece of sandstone taken from the Ohio River is at the center of a debate akin to two kids fighting in the schoolyard over a ball. In some quarters, it’s known as ‘‘Our Rock War.’’

It all began in September when an Ohio historian pulled the rock from the water.

Like many locals on the Kentucky side of the river, retired teacher Nita Cropper was outraged.

‘‘It belongs to the state of Kentucky,’’ said Cropper, an 81-year-old from South Shore.

‘‘We taught our children and grandchildren that if you took something that was not yours, without permission, you had to return it. That was stealing.’’

Cropper, who lives on land that has been in her family since 1807, said she remembers people who had seen the rock and said they fished off it.

The historian, Steve Shaffer of Ironton, Ohio, said people are overreacting. The rock, he said, was neglected and in danger of being damaged or lost forever. For now, the disputed boulder rests on some old tires in a dusty corner of a Portsmouth, Ohio, city maintenance garage, about 100 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

Shaffer says he deserves praise for saving the rock.

‘‘They want to punish Portsmouth and they want to punish me and they want to put this rock back in the river,’’ Shaffer said.

For years, the rock was a navigation marker for boaters along the river and also indicated the river’s water levels, showing itself when the river dipped and hiding in higher water.

Postcards and newspaper accounts dating back to the early 1900s mention the rock.

A Sept. 29, 1908, article from The Portsmouth Daily Times says more than 1,000 people flocked to the rock with ‘‘the water being so low that the historic relic is now plainly visible to the naked eye.’’

Somewhere during its history, a stick figure-like face was chiseled onto it. People carved names and initials onto it, including one marking that reads ‘‘EDC – Sep. 1856.’’

But the rock had been mostly submerged since the 1920s.

George Crothers, the director of the University of Kentucky’s William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology and Office of State Archaeology, said the rock was a protected archaeological object that was registered with the state in 1986.

Removing the rock damaged it because such artifacts are best preserved in their natural environment, Crothers said.

‘‘You remove it from the river and now it’s just a rock with some names on it,’’ he said. ‘‘They destroyed that (historical) context when they did that.’’

Kentucky’s elected officials also insist that the rock belongs to their state. A Kentucky grand jury is investigating whether criminal charges should be filed and Portsmouth Mayor James Kalb has been subpoenaed to testify. Earlier this spring, Kentucky lawmakers adopted a resolution condemning the rock’s removal and demanding its return.

Ohio lawmakers are considering a counter-resolution calling on Kentucky to abandon its claim to the rock.

The Kentucky attorney general’s office has gotten involved and a group of state officials recently held a news conference calling for the boulder’s return.

Back on the Ohio side of the river, Rick Duncan, Portsmouth’s wastewater director, said the controversy is overblown. Duncan said he’s lived in the area for nearly 50 years and hadn’t heard of the rock until the dispute surfaced.

‘‘Whether Ohio or Kentucky, I think it’s something that ought to be worked out,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘People just really don’t want it back in the river.’’