Ohio, Kentucky Feuding Over Rock In A Hard Place

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The states of Ohio and Kentucky are battling over a most unlikely object: a graffiti-covered rock.

From a distance, Indian Head Rock isn't much to look at, an unremarkable, brownish boulder about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. But a closer look reveals what makes the rock — first written about in an archeological publication in 1847 — more than just an ordinary boulder.

The surface is etched with names, some scratched and difficult to read and others chiseled more clearly. There's also a face that "some have said looks like Charlie Brown," according to Randy Nichols, a local history buff in Portsmouth, Ohio.

"In early days, it was called the Portsmouth Indians' head rock. It's a life-sized depiction of a smiley face," Nichols says.

The trouble started last year when the 8-ton, sandstone boulder was hauled out of the Ohio River. On one side of the river is Portsmouth and on the other is South Shore, Ky. Indian Head Rock was submerged 60 feet from the Kentucky shore until it was fished out.

Finding the rock wasn't easy. Once partially submerged, it hadn't been seen since the 1920s after navigational dams raised the river level and hid the boulder for decades.

But historian Steve Shaffer, the central character in this ongoing fight, had read stories about Indian Head Rock when he was a kid and vowed to find it. After many diving excursions, Shaffer and some buddies located the relic, pulled it out of the river and donated it to Portsmouth.

The mayor of Portsmouth, recognizing that the Ohio River is actually in Kentucky, offered it to the town of South Shore, Ky. Officials there weren't interested, so the plan was to display the boulder in Portsmouth.

That's when Kentucky state officials got involved; they say the rock belongs to them. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway wrote a letter demanding its return.

"This was a registered antiquity in Kentucky and it was taken, and that's theft of an antiquity under the statute," Conway says.

But Ohio officials said the Indian Head Rock belonged to them. To further complicate the matter, the Army Corps of Engineers claims it has jurisdiction over the boulder.

Shaffer isn't talking to the media because taking the boulder from the Ohio River bottom put him in legal jeopardy. He and one of his helpers were indicted this summer on felony charges.

It's not clear what will happen to Indian Head Rock. For now, this piece of American history sits a most inauspicious place — in a corner of a municipal garage in Portsmouth.

Fred Kight reports for member station WOUB.

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