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On a brisk winter’s day, my wife and I traveled to the picturesque horse country of North Salem for the sole purpose of seeing one of Westchester’s wonders, the “Balanced Rock,” or, as it is sometimes fancifully called, “North Salem’s Stonehenge.” The landmark has attracted curiosity seekers for generations (Trip Advisor gives it a four-star rating!), but this was the first time we had witnessed the rock’s exquisite weirdness.
The Balanced Rock is like a beloved pet rock… on steroids. Its primitive, mystical charm is timeless and so central to North Salem’s identity that a champion show horse in town was once named after it, as was a second ballot line for the local Democratic party. A depiction of the Balanced Rock serves as the logo for the local weekly newspaper, the North Salem News.
Drive down Route 121, and you can find the rock in plain sight at a bend in the road, a 60-ton granite behemoth incongruously balanced on four small, limestone pillars. Tufts of green moss can be seen on the rock, and there is evidence of early graffiti, including chiseled initials that are barely readable and the year 1860-something. You have an impulse to push against the thing, as if one good shove could knock it off its perch — and no doubt wags have tried. But no… the Balanced Rock will not budge. Indeed, it has not budged for thousands of years, not since it was dumped there by a receding glacier during the Pleistocene Epoch.
At least that is the conventional theory as to how the Balanced Rock came to be.
During our brief visit, we were all alone with the rock until six people in an SUV pulled up. It quickly became clear that they enthusiastically embraced the idea that the rock formation was not the natural result of a geological event but instead was a man-made structure — and that it was built by ancient Celts who may have had the technical assistance of extraterrestrials. Somehow, they informed me, the Balanced Rock and dolmen-like rock chambers in nearby Putnam County sent signals into outer space, accounting for thousands of UFO sightings in the 1980s.
“It is mysterious and charming – in a world that mostly isn’t at the moment.”
I think I got that straight.
Other than the generally accepted scientific explanation, the Balanced Rock origin stories run the gamut and are purely speculative. Alternative theories point to Native Americans and Colonial farmers. (A newspaper reporter jokingly remarked in 1935 that the rock “might’ve been put there by workmen, as some cynics say.”) The Celtic, or Druid, theory has many believers — including respected academic types — but the extraterrestrial angle really took hold a few years ago, when the History Channel’s popular Ancient Aliens series zeroed in on North Salem.
Susan Thompson, the North Salem town historian, probably knows more about the legends and myths of the Balanced Rock than anyone, but she declined to participate in the TV episode. “I decided not to be interviewed because I didn’t feel comfortable about it,” she told me. “I can’t be associated with that.”
She refers to the alien enthusiasts as “the fringe people,” quickly adding, “I don’t mean any disrespect by that.” And while she eschews the paranormal stuff, she nevertheless will chat with anyone who has an interest in the rock, no matter what their point of view may be.
“It continues to fascinate me as well,” she says.
Steven Schimmrich, author of Geology of the Hudson Valley: A Billion Years of History, dismissed the notion that the Balanced Rock was created by anything other than natural causes. “It’s cool to see but not necessarily mysterious,” says Schimmrich.
He added that there was no “compelling scientific evidence” to bolster claims that the rock was intentionally built by anyone — including little green men.
“We know that glaciers covered New York and dropped glacial erratics throughout the state,” Schimmrich says. “It’s not unreasonable that a couple of erratics were, by chance, dropped on other smaller rocks to create something like Balanced Rock.”
Actually, balanced rocks are found worldwide — and all of them are a source of wonder. Across the Hudson River, the village of Nyack boasted the “Balance Rock” (no “d”), which sat on a high hill. Unfortunately, it was jack-hammered out of existence in the 1960s for fear it would become unbalanced, roll off the hill, and crush cars below.
No such fate is in store for North Salem’s pet rock. It stands as a permanent sentinel of the past. As Susan Thompson says, “It is mysterious and charming — in a world that mostly isn’t at the moment.”