by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 5/2003
Franconia Notch State Park is located in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, a spectacular New Hampshire mountain pass traversed by parkway. The weather can be brutal; but the scenery here is staggering and breathtaking.
For ten millennia, someone has been watching. By the lake, if you were to stand in just the right place, and look up at the shoulder of the mountain, some 1200 feet above, you would see jutting out into space a rock formation that appeared to be that of a regal-looking man with a sharp nose and pointed beard.
The Old Man of the Mountains.
Far more than just another stop on the tourist bus, if any one thing represented all that is New Hampshire, it was that great stone Profile. The State symbol, he was depicted on everything from license plates, road signs, official New Hampshire documents, to a multitude of tacky souvenirs and postcards, and even on the New Hampshire Quarter. He symbolized the stoic and steadfast temperament of New Hampshire.
And now he’s gone.
An American icon, the Old Man, the silent, stony face that has watched over New Hampshire these past ten thousand years, is no more. He died unseen, but with a loud roar, sometime around two in the foggy and rainy morning of May 3.
New Hampshire lost the irreplaceable. For many New Hampshire residents, he represented a strong, unshakeable demeanor through the best and worst of times.
My nephew Colin cried when he heard the news. My Mom feels bad, and I too have a feeling of melancholy, for my family has been visiting this area of New Hampshire since I was a boy.
While my family’s Mountain Home was nearby Bartlett, we did make several visits to the Notch over these many years. As I grew older, Mom and I still took trips here, and I brought up friends, girlfriends, extended family, and my wife to explore this beautiful area. There is no area I have photographed more. On my desk at work is a picture of Colin, looking through one of those quarter-operated telescopes, at the Old Man of the Mountain.
New Hampshire touched our soul. Every time I arrived in Bartlett I gained a sense of peace and happiness. I felt closer to Dad, who despite his amiable protests loved the area. Over the last thirty years, there have been only a few times I have not made at least one annual trip to my Mountain Home. We drove up the Mount Washington Auto Road on the day its summit recorded its hottest temperature ever — 73 degrees. We swam in Lake Chochora; we played Mini-Golf at Whippy Dippy. We saw John Wayne in the Shootist at the North Conway drive-in. We walked the streets and shopped in North Conway. We sat for hours admiring the overwhelming beauty of Cathedral Ledge. We sent postcards and bought the tacky souvenirs at the nearby shops, and a lot of those souvenirs bore the visage of the Old Man.
Back in 1974, we brought Nana for a day trip to Franconia. We saw the Old Man of the Mountain, and then headed to the Flume, a spectacular natural gorge extending 800 feet at the base of Mount Liberty.
Truthfully, while the Flume is staggeringly beautiful, it was not the best place to bring bored children, or poor Nana, who at 72, had a lot of difficulty walking and climbing, and walking and climbing, and walking and climbing, through the scenic Flume.
But Sue and I returned to the Notch many years later and spent the day experiencing the wonders of the area, riding the aerial tramway at Cannon Mountain, walking on the shore of Echo Lake, and enjoying the Flume and long beautiful woodland trails.
Later that day, we arrived back at Profile Lake and took time to marvel at the Old Man of the Mountain.
“He looks like a demon,” Sue had said.
“He was built by extraterrestrials,” I replied.
“Can you ever be human?” Sue demanded wearily.
Legends of alien visitors aside, we’d chosen a perfect day to see the Old Man. That particular afternoon was just a little cloudy, and although many people were gathered near the base of Profile, there was an air of calm and reverence. A man was fishing in Profile Lake. Kids and their parents watched the Old Man, silent, tranquil.
In many ways, the area was as quiet and peaceful as a church. The Old Man watched ceaselessly, like some God of old. I tend to accept as true the stories that the Mohawk Indians prayed to the Old Man who they believed to be their god Manitou (although other accounts maintain the Indians did not worship or fear the Profile). Another tale – maybe true, maybe not, is that an Italian painter made a pilgrimage to Franconia Notch to use the Profile as a model for the face of Christ.
Hardly Godlike, in reality, the Old Man was just a pile of craggy red Conway granite ledges, the result of the melting and slipping away action of the ice sheet that covered the Franconia Mountains during the glacial period some 10,000 years ago, and the recurring action of the frost and ice in crevices which moved rocks and ledges into Profile forming positions.
Efforts to protect the state’s signature symbol go back to 1916, when the keeper of the Profile House, Colonel Green leaf, noticed that some of the rocks in the Profile were slipping. He called in a mason to fix the forehead.
Preservation efforts became more aggressive as time passed by and technology improved; New Hampshire had used cables and epoxy for years to keep the rock Profile from falling from erosion and the freeze-and-thaw cycle. Every summer, cracks were sealed, turnbuckles that secured the Old Man’s 12-foot chin, 10-foot nose, 20-by-10-foot head and two layers of brow 11 feet high were tested and tightened, cracks were measured for expansion and checked for acid rain damage.
Caretakers lovingly tended to the beloved Old Man despite geological experts warning for decades that the Old Man was living on borrowed time as the forces of nature unceasingly ate away at his support. For years, the extreme weather and howling winds of Franconia Notch has blasted the Old Man, and water has seeped in, alternately freezing and melting, creating cracks as it expanded and contracted, as well as changing the basic chemistry of the various minerals so that they were less stable. By the time a rainstorm hit the night of the collapse, it is believed that a mere 25 percent of the Old Man was attached firmly to the mountain.
Since the collapse, the Shore of Profile Lake has become sacred ground. People from all over gathered to remember and grieve the Old Man of the Mountain. They left flowers and pictures and postcards and little notes.
One note read, “You have seen the history of the world over many centuries. You have been a symbol of strength and perseverance to all who have seen you.”
They stood watching in disbelief. Some prayed. Many cried.
A tribe of Abenaki Indians beat their medicine drum in homage to the Old Man.
All of New Hampshire – and visitors from across the country and world—loved the Old Man of the Mountain.
Once the grieving process has ended, the remembrance will begin, and the question of how to preserve the memory of this most beloved icon must be dealt with.
New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson created the Old Man of the Mountain Revitalization Task Force to address the collapse of the Old Man and creation of a scale replica to be placed at one of the viewing areas. They will recommend what is next to be done.
Some have suggested the Old Man be rebuilt, but others say the Old Man is simply irreplaceable. New Hampshire’s Union Leader newspaper said in an editorial, “What attraction would a man-made New Man hold? The Old Man was a spectacle not because he was singularly marvelous … His appeal was his natural creation. The relative ease with which man could fashion a face similar in appearance would immediately render the work of little value or curiosity.”
It’s a tough call. For many people, Franconia Notch has a “Ground Zero” quality to it, but we must remember that the Old Man’s demise was not due to terrorism, vandalism or cruelty, but rather the same natural forces that first put him up on Profile Mountain. His demise was inevitable.
We will miss him, the wonder who inspired Daniel Webster to write, “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountain of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”