PLYMOUTH -- They crowded around the railing, bent over, looking down, peering at . . . something. A few tossed coins. Some snapped pictures. There was silence -- was it reverence or disbelief? Then, a few giggles.
"How do they know this is the rock?" asked Mike Randazzo, a tourist from San Diego. He answered his own question. "They don't."
His wife, Jennifer, nodded. "It's very underwhelming. I thought it would be bigger."
Welcome to Plymouth Rock, where once the Pilgrims stepped foot in the New World, and which, more recently, The Learning Channel named one of the 10 "lamest landmarks" in the world.
This dubious distinction doesn't sit well with Plymouth Town Manager Pamela Nolan, who has been on the job only a month, but who, as a former Weymouth resident, was familiar with the rock. "Maybe it is anticlimactic after people have driven two hours to come see it," she said. "But we're very proud of Plymouth Rock. I don't think it's something you ever forget . . . that you actually saw the rock the Pilgrims stepped on to come into the New World to form a new kind of government."
Alba Thompson, who has lived in Plymouth for all of her 85 years, agrees. "I just passed it, and in a downpour, the place was full. I think people see it as a powerful symbol of something great that happened back in 1620," said Thompson, who was the town's first woman to be elected to the Board of Selectmen ("It only took them 366 years," she noted). "Those who would pooh-pooh it might stop by one night when the waves are lapping and the moon shining on it and they might be taken back to a time when the land was new, and everything was possible if they just tried hard enough."
Here's what The Learning Channel had to say on the subject: "Students ride two hours on a school bus to look at Plymouth Rock. This is the rock upon which the Pilgrims are said to have stepped at their first arrival to the New World in 1620. OK, back on the bus!"
Keith Dominick was one of those poor students. On a recent day, the 24-year-old was back at Plymouth Rock with his parents and some out-of-town relatives. "I'm having post-traumatic stress disorder," declared Dominick, a medical student who lives in Worcester. "I had a fifth-grade field trip down here, and the teacher went on and on about how wonderful this rock was going to be. Then, we got down here, saw it, and a couple of kids started crying. There was a lot of anger directed toward my teacher."
Elizabeth Spiegel of Richmond, Va., wasn't terribly impressed, either. "There's a lot of historical stuff in Virginia, and this pales in comparison," she said. "I thought it was going to be a cliff, this huge massive cliff, like, land ho!"
In fact, the rock isn't very big. And it sits in a sand pit inside a granite portico, near the water line, so that tourists look down on it. It's got "1620" engraved on it, but that didn't happen until 1880, when it was moved to its current site. Though the "Pilgrim" tour guide who mans the site in the summer will tell you it's definitely the founding rock, the story is, to some at least, sketchy. There is no mention of the rock in the Pilgrims' own accounts; in fact, it wasn't until 1832 that the story appeared in James Thacher's "History of Plymouth."
According to the popular account, a 95-year-old man, in 1741, hearing that the town was going to build a wharf at the foot of Cole's Hill, protested. He said that the rock on the waterfront could not be disturbed because, as a young boy, he had been told by Governor William Bradford that a rock down there had received the first footsteps of our forefathers.
How do you know the old guy wasn't batty, someone asked Paul Jehle, the modern-day Pilgrim who was recently recounting the story to tourists.
"That's what people back then thought," replied Jehle, looking fetching in his Pilgrim knee breeches and broad-brimmed hat. "But they checked him out. He was a deacon at the First Church in Plymouth." So, the story goes, the rock was lifted with pulleys and oxen, causing the top half to split from the bottom. "People thought that was an omen that we were going to split from the British," continued Jehle, who is education director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation. On another move, it split again, and has been hacked away at by vandals, rendering the present-day rock one-third the size of the original. One high school class even spray-painted it gold at graduation.
"It's really small," noted Ginger Eure-Weckstein, who had brought her kids from Roanoke, Va. Added her daughter Meg, 17: "It's not very thrilling, but it's cool it's there."
Mary Ann Balcerek, a kindergarten teacher from West Virginia, defended the rock. Sort of: "It doesn't blow my socks off, but it's awesome." She took a picture of the rock to show her students. Her husband, Dennis, said he doesn't believe that this particular rock is the actual rock the Pilgrims stepped upon, but he doesn't really care. "It marks an historical spot."
As one tourist walked away, he was overheard saying: "Why would they step on a rock? Why wouldn't they go around?"
Jehle, perhaps a mindreader, admonished the crowd: "Don't just go home and say how small it looks. Realize how large it is in significance. This represents people's faith and courage." Later, he acknowledged that "we tour guides aren't too happy" about The Learning Channel's putdown of Plymouth Rock.
According to one local rumor, spare "rocks" are stored at the nearby Plymouth National Wax Museum, in case the original is irreparably damaged. A supervisor at the museum denied the tale, but said they used to sell replicas. "But the woman who made them passed away, so there are no more rocks left," she said.