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The Rise and Fall of Balance Rock

Balance Rock captivated all who beheld it or stood atop it. People journeyed from nearby and faraway places, by horseback, wagon, or on foot, to behold this scenic wonder that rivalled Hook Mountain in the collective imagination. From its summit, one could marvel at the expansive vista of the Tappan Zee stretching all the way to New York City. How did a 20-foot-long rock find itself atop the highest point on South Mountain above South Nyack? And why did park authorities remove such a renowned landmark in 1965? This article delves into the history of this iconic landmark, its unique geology, its ties to the infamous 19th-century politician Boss Tweed, its role in Indigenous, Dutch, and local folklore, and its tragic demise.

The Geology of Balance Rock

According to local amateur geologists Karl Mattsen and Tom Perry, Balance Rock consists of gneiss, a rock markedly distinct from the diabase upon which it rested. Gneiss, approximately a billion years old, is commonly found near Bear Mountain. Balance Rock likely journeyed with the vast glaciers that once blanketed the lower Hudson River valley during the Pleistocene Epoch, ending around 10,000 years ago. Such displaced rocks are known as glacial “erratics.” Balance Rock bore six depressions or “potholes” on one side, formed by the action of water and pebbles from a river or waterfall. It presumably originated from a stream near Bear Mountain.

View of Balance Rock from the slope above Tweed Boulevard

Despite its appearance of precariousness, the 20- by 12-foot rock was remarkably stable. Resting on relatively flat diabase bedrock, with additional support from several other stones wedged beneath it, it boasted a firm foundation. Its estimated weight of around 250 tons contributed to its stability.

Other Nyack Glacial Erratics

Balance Rock is not the sole famous local erratic. The smaller “Indian Rock,” or simply “Nyack Rock”, situated north of Oak Hill Cemetery, served as the original marker between Nyack and Upper Nyack. Another erratic, known as Julia’s Rock, lies midway down the same ridge in Upper Nyack.

Win Perry poses in front of Indian Rock

Balance Rock in Folklore

Indigenous peoples held glacial erratics in special regard. One folktale recounts the tale of an indigenous woman who used Balance Rock to evade wolves. A Dutch legend tells of Claes Jensen, who obtained a land patent for much of Nyack in the 1680s. In this story, Claes, a riverfront resident and traveling wheelwright, faces a mighty storm while sailing home. Blaming Storm King for the tempest, he incurs the wrath of the deity, who attempts to destroy Claes’s riverside home by hurling a large rock. The Flower Fairies intervene to save Claes’s children, tricking Storm King into dropping the stone atop the Palisades. Henceforth, flowers known as Dutchman’s breeches bloom near Balance Rock, purportedly in commemoration of the event.

A Not So Happy Tale

1930s photograph showing the scale of Balance Rock

The romantic allure of Balance Rock collided with the realities of the 1950s and ’60s. Beer cans, pop tops, and graffiti marred its surface. The seemingly precarious nature of the rock enticed Nyack High School boys, who conceived the notion of toppling it down the mountain as a senior prank in 1958. Previous attempts had failed due to the rock’s immense stability; moving it would have required thousands of students.

Undeterred, the seniors enlisted more participants and gathered equipment. Because of rumors circulating about the impending prank, which even mentioned the use of a dump truck, law enforcement agencies were prepared, with officers from multiple stations lying in wait on the designated Friday night. Some 20 or more students parked nearby and approached the rock armed with crowbars, jackhammers, and ropes. They were pursued through the woods by the police. Several boys were apprehended and later disciplined by being tasked with cleaning up the trash surrounding the rock. The threat of police intervention effectively halted further attempts to exploit Balance Rock as a senior prank, but concerns persisted about the rock’s stability.

Postcard showing Balance Rock

A Perceived Threat?

Although parents, police, and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission stated that the rock posed a danger, whether through youthful mischief or natural events. In reality, Balance Rock could only potentially roll into an isolated deep ravine to the east or towards the seldom-used Tweed Boulevard to the west even if it could be moved.

Hiking map detail of Blauvelt State Park. Balance Rock was located at the star inside the colored circle.

In December 1965, the Journal News reported that vandals had severed the top third of the rock “as cleanly as a bread knife.” A work crew from the Palisades Interstate Park Commission completed the destruction. Boreholes, still visible in the remaining fragments, suggest the use of explosives. The shattered pieces were left where they fell and remain visible today on the western slope.

Visible Remnants

The large remnants of Balance Rock litter a slope above Tweed Boulevard where a red-blazed hiking trail intersects with the blue-blazed Long Path. One rock fragment bears an inscription dated 1911, while another exhibits old initials carved into its surface. In winter, the view from its former location is breathtaking, with the skyscrapers of New York City gleaming in the distance and the Hudson River appearing as a tranquil waterway.

An Unfortunate Legacy

In a matter of hours, a billion-year-old rock, displaced by a retreating glacier millennia ago, vanished, depriving us of the opportunity to marvel at this natural wonder today. Nonetheless, the site retains some of the enchantment cherished by indigenous peoples, early settlers, and romantics of bygone eras.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health.

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