Tree in the water at Blue Hole.
Swinging into the water at Blue Hole in 2009.
photo by rob farrell
On a just-about perfect June day with school out for the summer, Monticello High sophomore Jack Farrell headed to the legendary swimming hole lying upstream from Sugar Hollow Reservoir– Blue Hole with its world-class rope swing– and a rude discovery awaited. The tree from which the rope has been hanging had been chainsawed and left to die in the pool below.
'We're pretty bummed," says Farrell, 15. "The tree lies just in front of the rocks that are good to jump off, so it eliminates that, too."
Blue Hole is that rarity among swimming holes: publicly accessible and yet not closely monitored by official bodies. Until now. And like diving boards, a rope swing increasingly is forbidden fruit in a liability-conscious culture.
The City of Charlottesville owns the 1,024-acre tract of land that holds Sugar Hollow Reservoir on the western end of the Albemarle County at the base of the Shenandoah National Park.
And perhaps because it is not an official park, Blue Hole managed to avoid official scrutiny for a long time. Even now, government bodies point to each other when asked who ordered the hit on the rope-swing tree.
Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority leases Sugar Hollow water rights from the city, but the city is responsible for the rest of the acreage, says city attorney Craig Brown.
"I can't say I've been consulted about [Blue Hole] recently," says Brown. He says he would have had a lot of questions about the potential liability from such an "attractive nuisance," as lawyers call fun things that can injure.
"We try to minimize risk," explains Brown. "The underlying question: is it safe?"
It turns out Blue Hole's safety record is spotty.
"We've gotten called out there multiple times," says Crozet Volunteer Fire Department Chief Preston Gentry. "There were some serious injuries."
Most recently in May, the weekend of UVA graduation, according to Gentry, a 54-year-old woman in town to see her son graduate from UVA Law School instead spent the weekend hospitalized after breaking her hip and collarbone in a swing gone bad.
"I made several phone calls to the city several years ago asking them to cut it down because of liability," says Gentry, noting that the volunteer fire company was called up to Blue Hole eight times last year.
City parks and rec director Brian Daly says the Blue Hole chainsaw massacre didn't come from his office, and his office doesn't do much maintenance at the popular rec area.
"We do a very little bit– some grading of the parking lot or fixing a sign," says Daly.
Charlottesville public works director Judy Mueller says through a spokesman that as far as she knows, Rivanna Water and Sewer would be in charge of Blue Hole. That agency's director, Tom Frederick, claims in an email the swimming hole is on federal land as part of the Shenandoah National Park.
A Shenandoah spokesperson is dubious because Blue Hole lies outside the Park's marked boundary, but she had not confirmed that at press time.
With all the uncertainty about who is responsible for the property, and with even Albemarle officials professing ignorance, the possibility looms that a rogue lumberjack took matters into his own hands.
The Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm advertises Blue Hole on its website, and owner Dick Cabell says it was popular with his guests.
"We tell them to enjoy swimming," says Cabell. "We don't advise them to go off the rope swing. That's for kids."
Cabell had heard a few weeks ago the tree had been cut down, but had no information on the chopper.
"It's a two-edged sword," says Cabell. "People enjoyed it, but it was dangerous, I have to admit."
Starr Hill Brewery's Mark Thompson has been swimming in Blue Hole since he was around 12 years old and recently took his own daughters there. He watched as 14-year-old Dominique mustered the courage to swing off the rope.
"I remember how proud I was– that rite of passage, that coming of age," says Thompson. "Sometimes you have to conquer your fears."
On the flip side, as a parent past the giddy recklessness and perceived indestructibility of youth, Thompson does admit to wondering, "How would you ever get someone out of here? It's an isolated spot. What would you do?"