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How Cobble Rock toppled in 1977 still unknown

February 2, 2013

Paul Durand stands on the spot where Cobble Rock once sat before it toppled over during a storm in 1977. (Photo/Ernest A. Brown)

WOONSOCKET – It’s an old story now, the tale of the city’s once famous Cobble Rock, but also one that continues to spark fond feelings of times gone by among those who remember it.
That is how Paul Durand, 64, of Crepeau Court was feeling while visiting the site of Cobble Rock in the city’s Fairmount woods during unseasonable warm weather on Wednesday.
A number of trees have been cut down near the historic spot at the North Smithfield town line and a new radio tower stands in the field bordering it, behind the Saint Antoine Residence off Rhodes Avenue.
Cobble Rock itself, a smoothed granite boulder not of this area and estimated at 200 tons, remains in the low-lying spot where it came to rest after toppling from its nearby former balancing spot on local ledge.
Exactly how the boulder lost its solid footing on the ledge outcropping and rolled upside down may never be known, but Durand was willing to tender his own family’s belief on how it happened while providing a photograph of the still-balancing rock.
Durand recalled how as a boy in his early teens, he and a friend from Fairmount, Albert Ledoux, would hike up to the top of the Fairmount ridge on a summer day and make their way to the well-known picnic spot.
The boys would use a nearby tree to climb atop Cobble Rock to sit and eat their lunches.
“You could see the whole area of the woods from up there,” he remembered. Getting down from the rock was not as easy and Durand remembered how he would slide down and scrape his legs and pants in the process. “It was a rough landing,” he said.
The rock was covered with graffiti in those days and if you looked hard enough, you could find dates from the early part of the century.
Although known as a weekend picnic spot for decades and longer, no one ever definitively explained how the rock came to be balanced so perfectly on the high ledge. Local amateur geologists, such as Clarence Newlander, had been quoted in old Woonsocket Call articles as attributing its placement to the movement of glaciers through the area thousands of years ago. Melting glaciers can drop rocks known as glacial erratics in precarious positions and that was a prime theory in Cobble Rock’s unique arrangement.
The largest proportions of the boulder overhung its smaller and more pointed ones in seeming defiance of gravity. A report on the spot was included in the “Our Heritage” column published in The Call during celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. It described Cobble Rock as one of the “most remarkable geological curiosities in the state.”
The site borders an area of Woonsocket and North Smithfield used to quarry Smithfield “scythe stones” that were well-known for the sharpening of farm implements when two communities were both still part of the Town of Smithfield.
But the history of Cobble Rock, or “Coblin” Rock as it was referred to in a Smithfield history written in 1881, even predates Rhode Island records. The site is also believed to be a landmark for Native Americans passing through the area and an annual gathering spot for members of the Narragansett tribe, which was said to hold ceremonies there.
Before it toppled, some in the city had proposed that the spot be named a state park and preserved as green space for recreational purposes.
But those ideas faded quickly after a catastrophic event erased Cobble Rock’s noteworthiness in September 1977 — just as an overnight landslide erased the Old Man of the Mountain’s role as a popular tourist attraction more recently in New Hampshire.
Durand recalled during his visit how his family had bought a house not far from Cobble Rock on Obeline Drive in the late 1960s and had been frequent visitors to the spot over the years.
The family, including his sister, Simone Pasquariello, now 70, and mother, Lillian, 95, would pose at the rock for pictures and sometimes put their arms out to the rock’s surface as if they were actually holding it in place.
The balancing act of the rock so vexed some who saw it, they would try to knock it out of kilter, even though its sudden tumble would have posed a great risk.
“They tried to blast it with dynamite, and even took bulldozers to move it but it wouldn’t budge,” Durand said. “It was an act of God that did it,” he added, while voicing his own belief about its upheaval.
Durand said his late father, Adrien Durand, a longtime employee of Saint Antoine, would go for regular walks up to the rock with the family’s German shepherd, Trek. As a big storm passed through the area overnight in September 1977, Durand said, Trek began to bark incessantly at his father’s home and made so much of a disturbance the elder Durand decided to go up the hill the following day to see what the storm had done to the woods.
“He came up here with Trek and they noticed that the rock had fallen,” Durand said. The change in Cobble Rock was noted by others at the time but it was never officially determined what had caused the toppling.
To this day, Durand believes his father’s reasoning, that lightning from the storm struck the rock and shifted it enough to roll it off its precarious perch.
The family’s dog had barked not only from the thunder but from also hearing the rumbling of the big rock as it tumbled on the ledges above the family’s home.
“The following day when we came up here it was like this,” Durand said as he pointed to the rock’s current position.
Even in its lower position, Durand said, Cobble Rock still brings back the memories of long-ago family gatherings at the spot and the time spent there with his friends.
“My mother would tell us not to get close to the rock because you could get hurt. But we were kids and didn’t listen,” he said.
Durand believes the city still holds the area as part of its conservation lands and suggested it is still a good spot to visit even without a giant boulder balanced on the ledge to draw it fame.
“I think it would be nice if people could come up here and read a sign that explained that Cobble Rock was once a landmark,” he said.

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