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From below, the clustered slump blocks form a jungle of rock. In places, thick tree roots slither like snakes down the rock face bearded with mosses and ferns. Some of the towering blocks form wide, dry passages open to the sky, resembling canyons, while others lean over narrow tunnels with the dark, damp, cool feel of caverns.
From atop the ledges, the view is vastly different. The stone floor is cut here and there by narrow crevasses, some as deep as 60 feet. In places, the floor disappears altogether, with a sheer drop over the edge.
In the distance are immense pillars of rock that appear to rise straight out of the Earth. From either perspective, Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park in northeast Portage County treats visitors to a stunning collection of geologic curiosities.
At Nelson Ledges, the rock formations sport imaginative names such as Old Maids Kitchen, Dwarfs Pass, Fat Mans Peril, The Squeeze, Devils Hole and Devils Icebox, along with Cascade Falls and Minnehaha Falls. Kennedy Ledges is currently restricted to visitors with written permission for scientific study. The rock formations here are smaller and less dramatic, and the limited foot traffic has allowed the native vegetation to thrive.
The Nelson and Kennedy ledges are cut in the Sharon Conglomerate, formed from small quartz pebbles rubbed round by continual tumbling in the fastmoving primeval streams of the Pennsylvanian period, 320 million years ago. This pebbly sandstone resisted weathering by wind, water and the cycles of freezing and thawing, but the less resistant rock layers beneath eroded away, crumbling the base of support for the massive Sharon Conglomerate layer. It fractured in huge chunks, forming cliffs and ledges on the hillside and leaving huge jumbled slump blocks at the base of the cliffs.
Traces of the charcoal remains of ancient campfires, as well as arrowheads and spear points left behind by hunting parties are evidence that the ledges provided shelter for Native American ancestors. Several major foot trails and canoe routes passed through the vicinity, which served as an important trade center.
By the time Portage County was organized in 1807, several pioneer families had settled near the ledges. No strangers to the hazards of the wilderness, these first families were apparently undaunted by the reputation of the rocky outcroppings as a lair for rattlesnakes in the frontier days.
One local tale claims that a settler built a home on one of the larger outcroppings above the ledges, but was driven out when, as he lit the first fire in his new fireplace, dozens of snakes wriggled out.
In the next few decades, the population of Nelson township grew briskly, and a local entrepreneur, Artemus Bancroft, built a tavern and inn alongside the ledges. Traveling tavern guests spread the word about the amazing rocky cliffs, drawing curious sightseers from as far away as Cleveland.
The ledges had become a tourist attraction, and Bancroft was quick to capitalize by building the Grotto, a hotel and community center. The Grotto served as a popular gathering place and recreation area, but just before the start of the Civil War, the hotel caught fire and burned to the ground. The crowds kept coming, though, and picnics and social events were held outdoors.
By 1868, construction had started on a grand new hotel across the road, the Cascade House. The Cascade House was named after nearby Cascade Falls, one of the most scenic features among the ledges. The original two-story building offered a public dining room and parlor along with a small convenience store stocked with picnic supplies. The second floor was lined with guest rooms for summer vacationers. The manicured grounds featured a scenic fountain and reflecting pool, a short walk from the falls. Soon after the Cascade House opened for business, a third floor dance hall was added. Balls were held on every holiday, and the hotel became the hub of social activity for the local communities, as well as a popular country respite for urbanites arriving by train at nearby Garrettsville.
In 1870, the discovery of sparkling flakes among the pebbles spurred a vibrant but short-lived gold rush. Local prospectors dreams of riches faded quickly when the golden rock was properly identified as iron pyrite, fools gold. The hollowed-out recess beneath Cascade Falls earned the name Gold Hunters Cave from this chapter of the ledges interesting history. The presence of the iron-laden mineral here still lends an orange tinge to the water that seeps through the porous rock.
In 1908, the true mineral wealth of the area was exploited with the opening of a sand quarry. Some of original rock formations were destroyed with the excavation of the quarry, or toppled by blasting from the mining operation. Fortunately, many of the scenic features were unharmed.
The state of Ohio began to purchase land in the area in the 1920s to place the fascinating rock formations in public ownership as a state forest-park for public enjoyment as well as protection of the resource. In 1948, the final parcel was purchased and Nelson Ledges was among the original state parks designated in 1949 when the Ohio State Park system was officially created.
Meanwhile, activity at the Cascade House had slowly declined for a generation. The grand old Victorian hotel with its fancy ballroom had grown shabby and hopelessly oldfashioned as the public yearned for a fresh approach to outdoor recreation. Local efforts to raise funds to restore the house as a museum were initiated, but the cost of returning it to its former glory was too large. Today, the Cascade House is a fond memory of the first golden era for Nelson-Kennedy Ledges.
In its second golden era, modern Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park is more popular than ever for hiking, picnicking, and nature sightseeing at its finest. The fantastic rock formations are worth their weight in gold as part of Ohios treasury of scenic natural wonders.
Jean Backs, Editor