It is a hulking chunk of basalt with an ironic name.
But in the North Woods town of Ely, Minn., the sedan-sized specimen of billowed lava known as “Pillow Rock” has managed to wedge city leaders between a rock and a hard place.
Almost everyone agrees that the boulder, formed underwater an estimated 2.7 billion years ago, sits underappreciated and could be better promoted as a tourist attraction in the town of 3,500. But just as the City Council was poised to sign an agreement last week to move the rock from a quiet residential street to a spot where more people would see it, opponents raised a ruckus, saying Pillow Rock is one stone better left unturned.
“There is some passion out there,” said former mayor Ross Petersen, whose administration considered the question a couple of years ago. “Surprisingly, sometimes these things get kind of big.”
The rock nearly protrudes onto a short neighborhood road inaptly named Main Street. Locals have played on it and posed for pictures near it. Apollo 15 astronauts even checked it out in 1970 as they prepared to explore the surface of the moon.
But at times through the years, Pillow Rock has been fenced off, ignored or overgrown with brush.
“Right now, it is like a huge, magnificent public book of knowledge that is not in circulation,” wrote Gerry Snyder, who advocates moving the rock to a higher-traffic area.
The City Council and a local committee have been considering what to do with it for a couple of years. Some wanted to leave it where it is and develop a park around it, but that proved too expensive for a city on a tight budget. Others wanted to move it to an existing park in town, or the newly built library, or an empty lot in the city’s business district. None of those options turned out to be feasible, either.
The most recent idea: Loaning it to the North American Bear Center, a nonprofit outside of town that gets some 30,000 visitors a year. The rock would remain the property of the city, but the center would make an educational display of it and raise donations to foot the cost of moving it, estimated at $40,000.
After citizens spoke against that idea at the City Council meeting, leaders decided to hold a public hearing, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
“I believe that it really should stay where it’s at … we’ve never given it a chance to be presented where it’s at,” said Bill Tefft, a city park and recreation board member who formed the committee. Attempting a move could damage the rock, he said, and residents have memories of it where it is. “I don’t necessarily accept the idea that people won’t go … I think we need better signage. I think we need something that tells its story.”
Part of what geologists have termed Ely greenstone, Pillow Rock is similar to a lot of other basalt surrounding the town. What makes it special, geologists say, is that it is a sizable chunk with obvious “pillows” formed by magma erupting into relatively cool water. The eruptions formed a crust while more lava erupted underneath, pushing the crust into pillow-shaped forms. Full pillows built up on one another.
‘A pretty cool example’
While other examples exist in the area, “most of the rest of it is not sitting out there so obvious,” said John Green, geology professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“It’s a pretty cool example. Just because of the way it has weathered, the pillows seem to be standing out pretty distinctly,” said Tony Runkel, a geologist with the Minnesota Geological Survey.
The rock is loose and wouldn’t need to be broken off from larger formations underground, officials have determined. Movers would build a “basket” to hold it, minimizing the chances of breaking it.
It’s unclear whether the rock arrived in its current spot through glacial movement or miners who once worked nearby.
To some leaders, it’s also unclear why the pillow rock has become such a flint.
“Change is difficult,” Mayor Chuck Novak said with a sigh this week, as he drove toward St. Paul to appeal for legislative funding for other projects. “We’re dealing with a rock as the major issue.”
City leaders want to respect everyone’s opinion, he said. He just wishes citizens would have expressed their sentiments earlier.
The Bear Center was approached about taking the rock and didn’t seek it out, senior director of operations Scott Edgett said. Center leaders would be happy to host the rock and put up educational displays around it in the center’s ecology section, showing it off to the public for free, he said. But they understand if residents don’t want it moved, too.
“We’ll be excited to get it if we get it. If we don’t get it, we’re not going to be torn up,” Edgett said. “The community is getting passionate about it. … But passion is good, you know, and it’s nice to see.”