Joseph Watkins, aching leg and all, had to hike down the trail to Peachtree Rock on Monday to see for himself.
He had heard that the huge natural sandstone sculpture he had been visiting for 55 years had toppled.
“It’s sad,” said Watkins, 66, who grew up near the Lexington County landmark and explored the special geological formations in the area as a kid. “I never thought I’d see it fall in my lifetime. ... I wish they could pick it up and stand it back up. I hate it – I swear I do.”
The upside down pyramid of sandstone will remain on its side, a testament to both the beauty of geology and the ugliness of human impact. While the formation might have finally fallen from its own top-heavy weight, the managers of the surrounding nature preserve suspect it was pushed. Vandals have been using saws to cut at the precarious base of the formation for years.
“There’s no doubt (the toppling) was accelerated by vandalism,” said Mark Robertson, executive director of S.C. chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which along with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources managed the area. “To me it’s a metaphor for what we’re doing to the whole world. We know through geologic time the world has changed tremendously, but we’re such a force of nature that now we’ve vastly accelerated that. And often not in good ways, often just destructive like this.”
Because Friday was a nice day for a hike, and nobody reported the rock toppled that day, preserve managers suspect it went over sometime Saturday or early Sunday. The first report of authorities came midday Sunday.
Peachtree Rock was the most distinctive of a series of sandstone outcrops in the preserve, carved by wind and water over millions of years. The area millions of years ago was ocean front. Archaeological digs found evidence natives had spent time in this area thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. The land was owned by the Michael J. Mungo, who deeded it to The Nature Conservancy in 1980.
While the term Peachtree referred to the shape of the formation, Watkins said there also once had a small peach tree growing on top of the formation. Kids used to be able to get to the top by climbing up a tree that had fallen against the formation.
More and more people have discovered the beauty of the area in recent years, and some of them unfortunately felt the need to carve initials and scrape away at the base of the preserve’s namesake rock. Experts warned it could fall on its own, and The Nature Conservancy but up a perimeter chain fence in 2006 with signs warning people to stay away from the rock. (Motion-detector cameras also were placed in the area, but they didn’t last long, and there weren’t any cameras out there recently, Robertson said.)
While there were some strong winds in the Midlands Saturday, the rock formation is in a valley that limits the strength of straight-line winds. No ropes or poles – possible evidence of it being pushed or pulled – were left nearby. The formation could have just fallen from its own weight.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources sent investigators to the preserve Monday afternoon. Capt. Robert McCullough acknowledged it would be difficult to make a case unless the vandals were extremely careless or stupid enough to post a video of their act online. The most likely charge would be destroying state property, which carries a $5,000 fine.
As Robertson inspected the section of the base that split in a relatively straight line, the sand crumpled easily in his hand. It’s amazing that base, only about eight feet in circumference, was holding up the heavier rock which is about 10 feet by 20 feet at the top.
The Peachtree Rock is in a valley carved by a small creek known as Hunt Branch, which also creates the only waterfall (it’s less than 20 feet high) in the Midlands. The valley and the stone cliffs around the creek have long attracted nature lovers and teens looking for an escape. Watkins was once one of those teens, but he said he never considered even scratching his initials in the soft sandstone.
“They do it for something to brag about,” Watkins said of the vandals, “but I tell ya that’s nothing to brag about.”
Watkins worries that vandals will go after some of the other sandstone formations in the preserve. While the namesake formation is about a quarter-mile walk down a trail, the next most prominent one, known as Little Peachtree Rock, is a much longer hike toward the back of the preserve.
If the news about the toppling makes more people come out and appreciate the special nature of the area, that’s not all bad, Robertson said. In addition to the sandstone outcroppings, there’s vegetation typical of mountain climes in the valley, a swampy tupelo bog up above along the creek and a ridge just a short hike away that gives the impression you’re in sand dunes at the beach. More than 245 species have been documented at the preserve.
“It’s still an amazing place,” Robertson said.