Rock Run  at Sandy Springs

We traveled along the moderate slopes down to Rockville. Within 3 or 4 miles of the Ohio River we found some little lagoons in the lowest places of the channel of the creek, at which we procured water, almost alive with small fishes, for our horse. At about 6 in the evening we arrived at Rockville, and took lodgings with the hospitable proprietor, Mr. Loughery. I am aware that in my account of this little journey, I have gone into the details of an exploring tourist, but as I was in a kind of terra incognita, a peculiar region, I thought my notes, pretty much as I have put them down at the time, might not be uninteresting or uninstructive.   

 ——John Locke, 1838, Second Annual Report of the Geological Survey, Ohio









Terra Incognita -- a land unrevealed

 Rock Run, 1838  John Locke was on business near the Ohio River area just west of Portsmouth, gathering information for an endeavor that would have dramatic impact on Terra incognita for the next sixty years. He was measuring various layers of sandstone in what is known as the Buena Vista member of Ohio’s Mississippian bedrocks. His purpose was to archive the state’s geologic resources for the purpose of quarrying sandstone to build the rapidly growing cities and towns of the East. John Locke was particularly interested in the height and thickness of a strata of an even-textured blue-gray sandstone called City Ledge that had begun to be mined in the area as early as 1814. The sandstone bed was usually under 16 inches in height, and lay between thin beds of shale. It was easily split and wedged off in large regular blocks, and then loaded on Ohio River barges and shipped downstream to Cincinnati, the city referred to in City Ledge. City Ledge was considered by many to be the best quality sandstone in the entire Eastern United States. 

Rock Run, 2003. The wildness of the Rock Run region of southern Ohio is legendary, even in modern times. The 300-foot depth of Rock Run’s valley is one of the deepest in the county, and contributes habitat to bobcat, timber rattlesnakes, and Allegheny wood rats. Rock Run’s watershed contains a rare forest-association of black birch, hemlock, and sweetgum that is restricted in the state to the Ohio River Valley. Not surprisingly, Rock Run’s botanicals on the forest floor are spectacular. The site reports as impressive 24 species of ferns. The lower slopes are covered with mats wild ginger, dwarf crested iris, with occasional specimens of the very rare nodding mandarin. In the deepest coves, colonies of robust Trillium erectum, the red wake-robin, grow. A small but interesting mint provides a woodland carpet in many areas, Meehania cordata, or Meehan’s mint. It is the only species in its genera in the entire U.S., but it has at least one counterpart in the Asian temperate forest—Meehania urticifolia which grows in the mountain forests in the Honshu region of Japan. In Ohio, Meehania cordata  is an unusual find and we were delighted to see its cheerful flowers at Rock Run.

 Like most of the hills in western Scioto and eastern Adams Counties, the steep slopes of Rock Run had an exposed layer of City Ledge sandstone half way up its flanks. And, just like elsewhere in the region, 19th C. stonecutters drove their horse and oxen up the creek and  cut roads up the nearly vertical slopes to get to the stone. They cut the City Ledge into the hill as far as they could before the overburden of the higher bedrocks impeded further progress, then dragged the quarried stone down the dirt roadway, over the streambed, and eventually to barges waiting on the Ohio River. These were the rocks that built the cities of our rapidly growing nation, in Cincinnati, and Louisville. The forests, of course, were timbered.

 By 1907 the stone business along the lower Scioto came to an end, replaced by the cement and brick industries, the latter needing steady supplies of clay. By 1920 the shale beds which formed the base of Rock Run, as well as a considerable fraction of the valley’s exposed bedrock, became a potentially lucrative source of clay, and the rights to the shale were sold to a private company. This time, the mining never happened. The trees, however, were cut several times again over the 20th century, most recently in the late 1990’s; passing ownership several times. In 2001 a massive ice storm pummeled Scioto and Adams County, encasing the trees in impossibly heavy burden of ice. Across the county nearly all the trees snapped from the weight, creating an impenetrable jungle of broken twigs, branches, and toppled trees.

 Perhaps by now the reader presumes that this, like a classic Greek tragedy, is the end of the story of Terra incognita, but it is not. Rock Run continued to cultivate its secrets, waiting for someone to notice its special beauty. And beautiful it is. Mining, timbering, and ice damage not withstanding, Rock Run remained a mysteriously wild valley, its essence defying past efforts of human dominion. From the vantage of the shale bottomed creek, the steep-walled valley feels isolated and otherworldly. The stream bottom is a chaotic tumble of huge sandstone rocks, many retaining the ripple pattern of the ancient sandbars that deposited them millions of years ago. Between the sandstone slabs are occasional deep pockets of crystal clear water, dancing with schools of flashing fish, just like John Locke observed them over 160 years ago.  On the peaty steep slopes, amidst the tangle of fallen branches, are frequent colonies of wild ginger, crested iris, and partridge berry; and occasionally, a patch of the fairy-like flowers of spotted mandarin — a state-threatened member of the lily family.

Whatever dramatic damage was once inflicted on this fragile valley by the quarries, time has softened and the resourceful forces of nature have mitigated. Today the  old  excavated sandstone ledges create hanging terraces, holding so much water they qualify as small wetlands. Here Rock Run claims the presence of the rare four-toed salamander and the state-threatened mud salamander, as well as eleven other amphibians and reptiles.

 A land revealed. Terra incognita waited.  In 2003 a person entered Rock Run who could truly see it — not through the eyes of utility, not through the eyes of profit — but with eyes exquisitely trained to discern botanical detail and diversity. Six hours later,  Botanist Rick Gardner walked back out of Rock Run with a heart commitment to save it. It didn’t seem like an impossibility — the land was listed for sale at the very reasonable price of $750 dollars/acre for 184 acres. He thought it a bargain. He pursued saving Rock Run for an entire year, but without success. In the summer of 2004, Rick invited the Highlands Nature Sanctuary to walk Rock Run, which just so happened to lie exactly on the southern tip of the newly conceived Arc of Appalachia Preserve Region.

Arc staff walked into the wild valley with Rick right after an immense rain, one of dozens that would drench the Ohio valley with record rainfalls that summer. That day the water in Rock Run ran white around the rocks, still crystal clear, splashing around our feet. After six hours of climbing the steep valley slopes, wading the edge of wetlands, and circumventing shale slides, we were exhausted, but still we were reluctant to leave terra incognita.

 Two months later the land was put into  contract. In October of 2004 it was purchased by The Arc. The story of Rock Run’s preservation is a classic story of the unique challenges facing preservation work in the East — with the property’s long history of resource extraction. After two hundred years of disturbance, Rock Run can finally rest, and because the entire upper watershed of Rock Run lies within the immense 60,000 acre  Shawnee State Forest, the  water pouring down the rock-lined streambed is guaranteed to remain crystal clear far into the future.

 Rock Run II, 2005.  In 2005 the Arc expands Rock Run Preserve up to 262 acres, adding important buffer land. Nearby limestone cliffs  recorded such rarities as green salamanders, cave salamanders, and even the elusive and highly threatened timber rattlesnake.

Rock Run III, 2009 The latest expansion to Rock Run in 2009  brought Rock Run up to 355 acres in size, and contributed two new, and very rare ecosystems to the Arc’s preserve system, growing in the sandy shoals deposited by the Ohio River in earlier geologic times: Black Oak Sand Barrens and Meadow-Beauty-Beaksedge-Hillside-Seeps.  The nearby village is widely known as a botanical and zoological hotspot. Where natural springs emerge from the base of the cliffs, they work their way through the sand, forming quicksand, inspiring the village name  Sandy Springs. The region boasts prickly pear cactus, spadefoot toads, and a rare lichen that has evolved the capacity to survive underwater during floods.  Within the Arc’s new acquisition are acres of natural prickly pear cactus gardens, and in mid-summer, the rare Virginia Meadow-beauties burst into vibrant bloom around the sandy seeps. Today the preserve  stands at 355 acres in size.


Here’s the list of notable plant species found in Rock Run’s Newest Addition:

Asclepias amplexicaulis (Sand Milkweed) – Potentially Threatened

Eleocharis tenuis (Slender Spike-rush) – Threatened

Galactia volubilis (Milk Pea) – Threatened

Opuntiia humifusa (Prickly-pear Cactus) – Potentially Threatened

Rhexia virginica (Virginia Meadow-beauty) – Potentially Threatened

Rhynchospora capetillata (Northern Beaksedge) – First for Adams County

Scutellaria integrifolia (Helmet Flower) – on the Watch List.
     First population for Adams County
Carex austrina (southern sedge) Is not state-listed yet but is a new find in Ohio


Rock Run, 2010. Our eye is now on a new property tcurrently for sale,
colored teal in the map shown above. If the Arc can raise the necessary  funds, Rock Run Preserve will grow from today's 355 acres to 587 acres in size. The expansion would secure additional contiguous forest canopy in
the Shawnee State Forest area, and increase ecosystem protection in one
of the most bio-diverse regions in the state. Most importantly, the upper headwaters of one of the state's most pristine streams would be protected by securing  the  last of the upper watershed of Rock Run  that remains in private hands.

Photos: timber rattler and spotted mandarin by John Howard; all others by Larry Henry


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