New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, 20 Years Gone, Still Bewitches
The rock formation collapsed in 2003, but it hasn’t lost its hold on residents, who have passed on their affection to a new generation.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In New Hampshire, a granite icon that symbolized the state’s grit has not faded from memory.
FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. — In the annals of natural rock formations resembling human faces, New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain was an unrivaled specimen.
Viewed from exactly the right spot on the ground below, the massive stack of granite ledges coalesced into the spitting image of a wizened man’s profile, from sloped forehead to jutting chin, an unlikely bit of magic treasured by generations of New Englanders.
And yet. Beloved as he was, the Old Man, may he rest in peace, was a pile of rocks — until the wee hours of May 3, 2003, when the five slabs unceremoniously collapsed, victims of the same slow-moving geologic forces that had sculpted the human likeness in the first place. So why, 20 years later, is the stone face still mourned in New Hampshire like a fallen president, the subject of songs and poems, a Statehouse proclamation and a virtual remembrance event that drew hundreds of viewers on Wednesday?
“It’s a very predictable question, and one we are still struggling to answer,” said Brian Fowler, a geologist who helps run the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, created after the collapse to nurture the memory of the lost tourist attraction. “I think it was a timeless and very reassuring kind of symbol, and people thought it was never going to fall.”
When it did, New Englanders felt its loss deeply, for reasons partly rooted in memory and nostalgia. If someone you loved took you to see the Old Man as a child, as my own father did when I was growing up in Massachusetts — kneeling beside you as you both peered skyward, and coaching you to find the profile’s outline for the first time — that moment of discovery might linger for a lifetime.
“There’s some spirit, some connection, that is powerful,” Mr. Fowler added.
To keep that spirit alive, his organization hosted the virtual gathering Wednesday morning and is planning ongoing events throughout the year. The online program included a new song, “Great Stone Face,” by a New Hampshire songwriter, an upbeat message from Gov. Chris Sununu and poems written by fifth graders at the Lafayette Regional School in Franconia — children born a decade after the Old Man fell.
“This landmark was a great loss / he was New Hampshire’s greatest boss,” begins one stirring tribute by a student named Freya.
Few visitors braved the raw, rainy conditions Wednesday morning at the viewing plaza below the Old Man’s former perch on Cannon Cliff in Franconia Notch, a scenic mountain pass and popular hiking destination in the White Mountains. Built in the years after the Old Man fell, the memorial plaza was funded by the sale of 1,100 engraved paving stones that encircle the site, bearing messages from people who loved the spot. “Thanks for the memories,” reads one.
A single bouquet of roses lay beside the wooden sign there early Wednesday, while a lone fly fisherman stood knee-deep in nearby Profile Lake.
Earlier, Mike Daniels, 40, a Littleton, N.H., native working nearby, made a point of stopping by to pay his respects on the anniversary. He, like many here, treasured the Old Man as a symbol of Granite Staters’ hardiness and grit, and as he stood rereading Daniel Webster’s famous quote about “God Almighty” hanging out “a sign” in the White Mountains “to show that there He makes men,” Mr. Daniels acknowledged feeling some emotion.
“It means something to people around here,” he said.
To outsiders, the attachment was harder to grasp. “It’s actually kind of funny that the state would go to such trouble to create a memorial for a rock formation,” said Fran Moss, a first-time visitor from the Bronx. “But it obviously meant a lot to people.”
“They’ve heard about it, and they want to see it, even though it’s not there,” Mr. Fowler said. “They wonder, what is it about this thing that made my grandparents want to go there on their honeymoon?”
First described in writing in 1805 by white surveyors scouting road locations, the Old Man inspired a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and helped make the area a tourism hub. Efforts to preserve the face began in 1916, when rods were installed to prevent the forehead from slipping off. By 1945, legislators designated the Old Man as the official state emblem, emblazoned on road signs and license plates; a few years later, turnbuckles were installed to further secure the ledges.
Mr. Fowler’s long history with the Old Man began in 1976, when he was recruited to perform the first structural-mechanical analysis of the rocks and their supports. The stakes were high: The state was mulling a northern extension of Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch and needed to know if the Old Man could survive the blasting the project would entail.
Upon inspection, Mr. Fowler advised that it could, and later supervised the blasting itself. “I had a bag packed every day to go to Montreal, in case it turned out I was wrong,” he joked.
Yet those who understood the natural cycles of the earth knew the Old Man would not last forever. Eventually, the shelf of rock beneath his chin, a critical balancing point for the 7,000 tons of pinkish-colored Conway granite above it, would weather to the point of giving way.
“I used to tell people, if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to” said Mr. Fowler, who performed the official geologic “autopsy” for the state after the Old Man toppled, finding that the failure had gone as predicted.
Skye Bissonnette, now 31, was a sixth grader when the Old Man finally succumbed. A lifelong resident of nearby Bethlehem, N.H., she had grown up with the face looking down from above.
“It was magic and comfort and a sense of home, a natural thing that felt like it was ours,” she said in an interview. “It still looks empty where it used to be, like a missing piece.”
Still, the presence of the Old Man persists.
A Dartmouth College graduate student has created a new 3D analysis of the site for fans old and new; a museum in Plymouth, N.H., will host a summer-long exhibit starring the stone face, and teachers still share the Old Man’s story at the local school where students penned the tribute poems.
“These kids are 10 years old, but they knew all about it, even though they weren’t born,” said Veronica Francis, a marketing consultant assisting with the anniversary events. “I was like, how do they know? But I guess it’s just in your blood if you’re from New Hampshire.”