The Old Man of The Mountain Fell on May 3, 2003. What Now?

Whatever happened to the Old Man of the Mountain in NH? It’s been years since its collapse, but its fate still hangs in the balance.

By Justin Shatwell

Feb 22 2010

Old Man of the Mountain

The Old Man of the Mountain

Photo Credit : Wayne Johnson/Shutterstock

We can assume that it came down with a crash on May 3, 2003, though in truth we don’t know. Some kids camping nearby heard something that might have been the collapse, but it’s impossible to be certain, because, in what is likely its only act of irony, the Old Man of the Mountain–that New Hampshire icon that millions gawked at during its long life–departed this world without a single witness.

A storm was rolling through Franconia Notch in the early hours of May 3, 2003. The churning clouds scraped low along the valley walls, obscuring the Old Man’s perch on Cannon Mountain. Although it’s tempting to say that Old Stone Face chose a rare moment of privacy to die in dignity, really the storm just brought one raindrop too many.

The five granite ledges that made up the Old Man had always held only a tenuous grasp on the mountainside. Forty feet tall and weighing five tons, the massive structure remained jutting out from the cliff only because, by some miracle of stacking, its center of gravity lay within the meager two feet where the lowest slab (the “chin”) rested on solid ground. But through centuries of erosion, that invisible line had inched closer and closer to the abyss until, finally, the Old Man slipped off.

The clouds soon passed, and the sun rose over the bucolic alpine playground of Franconia Notch State Park. A trail crew of two rangers, Amy Seers and Cynthia Savoy, were the first people to realize what had happened. They rushed back to headquarters and sprang the news on their skeptical boss, Bill O’Connor. “My biggest fear was that someone had gotten hurt,” he recalls. “They told me that the Old Man had fallen down and I said, ‘Huh, I’ve heard that one before.'”

There had been enough erroneous claims of the symbol’s collapse that O’Connor made the rangers drive back up there with him. They met up at the Old Man viewing area on the northbound side of I-93. After taking it all in, they pulled out their phones and started dialing.

Although the Old Man was the symbol of the entire state, it belonged to the people of the Notch. To this day they refer to the Old Man as “he,” not “it.” It was a constant companion, a part of the family. As Bill O’Connor put it, “He was like a grandfather.”

So after the rangers’ first frantic phone calls, news of the collapse spread through the community the way news of a death does, each person calling his or her phone tree of friends and family, breaking the news gently over and over again.

One of the first people notified was Dick Hamilton. As president of the White Mountains Attractions tourism group, he’d spent 35 years promoting Franconia Notch and was the Old Man’s de facto head of PR. He arrived within minutes and, like a grieving son, put off his mourning to plan the funeral. He commandeered the viewing area as a press staging ground; then, without any idea of who would pay for it, he ordered a helicopter. The press trucks streaming up I-93 would want a closer look, and he was determined to give the Old Man the viewing it deserved.

Also blazing up the highway was Dave Nielsen, the Old Man’s second and final caretaker. He’d gotten word while at a meeting in Belmont, 65 miles to the south. Nielsen and Hamilton, two old friends who’d spent much of their lives maintaining the Old Man, met up and boarded the helicopter together. They were the first to get a closer look–before the state park head, before the governor, before even CNN. They could all wait their turn.

The helicopter arced upwards and came as close to the bare cliff face as possible. The granite there had been ground to a powder, making it look as though covered in dirt. It was a quiet flight as both men tried to diagnose what had gone wrong. “I needed to know: Did I do something to cause this to happen?” Nielsen recalls. “Did I fail to do something to cause this to happen?” After 10 minutes, the helicopter banked away, and both men spun around to take one final look.

Rarely is a symbol so emblematic of a state destroyed so fast, and the media were eager to know how New Hampshire would respond. Governor Craig Benson made a brief speech in which he did what every leader does when an event renders him powerless: He promised quick, decisive action. “This closes a very long chapter in New Hampshire history, but we’ll begin a new chapter immediately,” he said. “The Old Man is counting on us not to forget his legacy, and we won’t let him down.”

Essentially, he promised that something would be built by someone somehow. The particulars? Well, they’d figure those out later.

It’s impossible to talk about the ensuing years of struggle that defined the effort to memorialize the Old Man without acknowledging up front that many people find the whole affair ridiculous. On its surface, this is the story of an argument over the best way to carve one rock into a monument to another.

In the days following the collapse, Benson appointed a task force to formulate a proper remembrance. The move was met with sarcasm by some. In his caustically titled column “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” Boston Globe writer Brian McGrory mocked the people who were driving to the Notch to leave flowers and notes. “Good riddance,” he wrote. “Wipe away the crocodile tears … Rock slides happen.”

But those who mourned the Old Man did so sincerely. It had been a tourist destination for almost as long as New Hampshire had been a state, and in their travels people had built personal connections to the symbol. In an online scrapbook hosted by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, mourners left story after story of childhood road trips, first dates, and anniversaries spent in the shadow of the Old Man. “I grew up with the Old Man and I am devastated at the loss,” commented one poster, Jocelyn Garlington. “It brought me much pleasure to stop and admire him with my own children just as my parents did for me. It’s just unfortunate that I took it for granted to some degree, thinking it would be there for my grandchildren to see someday.”

The Old Man of the Mountain was a constant in people’s lives. When it fell, it was a stark reminder that nothing, not even granite, lasts forever. So although it’s easy to roll your eyes when proponents of the monument speak of the collapse in the same breath as the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, remember: Maybe not for you, but for them.

The state of New Hampshire bet heavily on the extent of these emotions when, on the first anniversary of the collapse, Benson’s task force announced its plan to build a memorial. In the Granite State tradition of low taxes and small government, the responsibility for designing and constructing the monument was placed in the hands of a small group of unpaid and unfunded volunteers. A collection of businessmen, bureaucrats, and dignitaries from the Franconia region, the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund was commissioned with little more than goodwill to bank on. It would prove to be an unpredictable and double-edged commodity.

The frustrating thing about memory is that it isn’t concrete. The Old Man was easy to define when it hung from the cliff. It had mass and size. If someone asked you what it was, you could go to the shores of Profile Lake and point at it. That was the Old Man. But what was it now?

Building a memorial to something is always easier when people don’t really care about it. But when a memory is fresh, when there are a thousand different opinions about what made it special, how do you choose?

“I was skeptical at first about what we could do that would be appropriate,” remembers Hamilton, who, although retired since 2005, still promotes the Old Man as a member of the volunteer group. He recalls that those involved with the memorial made a bold assumption early on: that the people of New Hampshire actually wanted a monument, despite some evidence to the contrary: “I think there were like 3,000 people who e-mailed and wrote. The vast majority said Don’t do anything. Like 85 percent or something.”

For many, the Old Man was primarily a natural wonder. To them, any replica would be tawdry and pointless, just as if Old Faithful had stopped erupting and you’d replaced it with a firehose on a timer. Some felt that the rocks at the bottom of the cliff were monument enough.

But others argued that the Old Man was an integral part of New Hampshire’s identity. Along with the rallying cry “Live Free or Die,” it remains the state’s official emblem, evoking the flinty, self-sufficient values on which the state prides itself. It’s also everywhere. It’s on the state quarter, the license plates, the highway signs. It’s on badges and letterhead and seals. If the Old Man is to remain the face of New Hampshire (and it’s blasphemy to suggest it won’t), shouldn’t it have something real–something physical–to represent it?

The Fund members believed so, but they decided to build more than just a replica. The greatest monuments are those that provide visitors with some kind of experience: All the fluted columns and marbles steps in Washington, D.C., for example, don’t hold a candle to the stark power of picking out the names you know on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. If the Old Man were to mean anything to the generations who’d never see it, the Fund would need something like that–something that could make the memories live again.

They found it in a design by Shelly Bradbury and Ron Magers, a design that focuses on the Old Man’s most curious attribute: In a sense, it never really existed. The iconic stone profile was mostly an optical illusion. Up close, the Old Man looked like any other granite formation–jagged and random–but from one angle, it lined up to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Residents of the Notch often talk about the magic moment when, as they drove along I-93, the Old Man would emerge from the chaos of the mountain and then, just as quickly, disappear again.

After passing through a stone gateway, memorial visitors would come across five granite monoliths. From one spot at the head of the trail, they’d line up, and their irregular sides would combine to re-create the Old Man’s illusion: the chin, the nose, the prominent forehead. This trick would be used a second time in miniature at the shore of the lake. Tiny stones along the sides of poles arcing toward the mountain would, from one angle, place a phantom image of the profile back on the cliff where it once stood.

Reactions to the design were mixed. The $5 million price tag gave pause, but so did the fact that owing to the size of the monoliths, the granite blocks would have to be quarried in Vermont. There was also a vocal and persistent minority demanding that the profile be literally rebuilt on the mountainside.

Still, when the Fund members revealed the design in February 2007, they predicted that they could have it built by May 2008, for a fifth-anniversary dedication. They solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first few days and convinced the Rock of Ages quarry to mine the stones on faith. But soon momentum waned, and donations dried up. They lowered their expectations to a May groundbreaking, but the fifth anniversary passed with no construction.

For a moment, everything had seemed to line up for the Fund, but then, just as quickly, it had vanished.

The trail to Profile Lake is still littered with reminders of the Old Man. The old ice-cream stand remains but has gone out of business, and the carved signs along the road advertising “Old Man Viewing” have taken on a funereal tone. From the lake you can clearly see the debris field high up on the mountain. “It’s kind of like a graveyard to me,” reflects Dave Nielsen, who continues his work as one of the fundraisers.

Two weeks after the collapse, Nielsen led a small group of friends up through the debris. It was overcast and raining, and the granite was dangerously slick. They had come to say goodbye and to see where the remains had fallen.

They found a few stones they knew were the Old Man’s, still marked with the paint or epoxy that Nielsen had likely applied himself. Nielsen had been the Old Man’s caretaker since he’d inherited the title from his father in 1999. For four decades the two of them had lowered themselves over the side of the cliff to measure and fill cracks in the Old Man’s face. It had been dangerous work, and neither had ever drawn a salary as caretaker. At most the state would supply $1,250 a year, so they’d been forced to beg and borrow the majority of their supplies. Whenever they’d needed a skill they didn’t possess, someone from the community would volunteer. The friends who joined Dave Nielsen that day were just a handful of the scores who had risked their lives to help them.

The group gathered in a circle to say some words. Everyone knew the moment meant more for Dave. When his father passed away, Dave had left his ashes in one of the Old Man’s cracks. They were now somewhere amid the rubble. Nielsen recalls what happened next with a touch of awe: “All of a sudden, the fog opens up. We can clearly see all the way up to where the Old Man was, and then the fog rolls back in. No one said anything else. We put some flowers on the ground, and I cut them loose. Nothing else you could say.”

Nielsen doesn’t regret the work he’s done for the Old Man, either before the collapse or for the Fund. When he talks about it, his speech is littered with the phrase “the right thing to do.” He often retells a lesson his father taught him: “You have to do something as a volunteer to give back to your community for the privilege of living here.” When you talk to people about what the Old Man meant, this sentiment comes up over and over again. The Nielsens saw a problem and they fixed it, without asking anything in return.

It might have seemed natural, then, that the Old Man memorial would be built in similar fashion–a grassroots outpouring to restore the state’s fallen symbol–but that wasn’t the case. Committee members opted for a corporate fundraising approach. They focused on quietly soliciting from businesses and the wealthy and did little to spread the word about their project. Press coverage was anemic, and few people were even aware of the Fund’s existence.

This approach infuriated Nielsen. “The people who have $5 to give should be able to do that,” he grumbles. “There’s nobody out there asking school kids for their pennies.” While it’s impossible to know whether such an appeal to the masses would have worked, it couldn’t have done worse than the corporate approach. The Fund was hamstrung by its volunteer status. Large donors wouldn’t contribute without some kind of government guarantee.

“If I won Megabucks, I’d fund this project,” Nielsen says without a hint of sarcasm. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of money. Those who do have a lot of money haven’t stepped up, for some reason.” If people like Dave Nielsen and Dick Hamilton could have chipped out the granite they needed with their bare hands and dragged it to Profile Lake on their backs, the monument would have been built by now. But they couldn’t–it was just too big. The monument has outgrown the memory, and in doing so might have left behind the people who cared about it most.

By the end of 2008, the Legacy Fund had hit a wall. It had few donors, and public interest had all but dried up. To save the project, committee members reluctantly took a step they knew would move them further from what the Old Man had represented: They asked the state for money. Their reasoning was simple: After all the money the state had made on the Old Man, it was time to pay a little back. Besides, it was an investment–something to bring back the tourists. “This thing is the right thing to do emotionally,” Nielsen says. “This thing is the right thing to do financially.”

The right thing? Perhaps. But like everything else with the Old Man, that’s a matter of perspective.

By the time the Legacy Fund found its way to the halls of the Legislative Office Building in Concord, what exactly it was fighting for had become a matter of some confusion. What was this legacy? Was it a monument or a memory, and did one truly require the other?

The bill requested $2.5 million and would make the Fund a part of the state government. With the recession in full swing, members expected a budget fight, but were blindsided when their most bitter opposition arose from a freshman representative with a monument design of his own.

Kenneth Gidge’s first act as a legislator was to file a bill calling for a copper likeness of the Old Man to be built on top of Cannon Mountain. It was a shot across the Fund’s bow. The group’s detractors rallied around Gidge and hoped his challenge might strip Fund members of their sole right to build at the park.

But Gidge’s bill was weak. He had no blueprints and no funding plan, but he made up for that with populist rhetoric. Gidge had been a longtime talk-radio host, and he knew how to get people’s attention. He attacked the Fund on the core issue–money–arguing that no monument built on the ground would ever bring in as many tourists as one on the cliff. He cast the Fund as a group of out-of-touch purists who were too emotionally attached. “And there will be no Vermont granite,” he vowed. “I promise you that.”

But all of this drama was but a tempest in a teacup. Recessionary budget cuts were shutting down prisons and eating into subsidies for foster families, and no legislator wanted to be seen as favoring some monument over that. When news of the two bills broke in the Union Leader on January 16, 2009, public backlash was swift: “GET FOCUSED, PEOPLE!” implored one writer from Derry. “It’s nice to see our lawmakers are focusing in on the important issues of our time, when the state is facing huge deficits and people are losing their jobs by the thousands.” Another writer added, “I am saddened that my children will never gaze upon the Old Man, but the New Hampshire he once represented is long dead.”

The legislative committee rejected Gidge’s bill overwhelmingly. The Fund scrambled to remove its request for money but still hoped for state recognition. Just before the hearing, a rumor spread that an amendment would be added, barring the group from ever receiving state funds. Rather than face that, members removed their bill from consideration. The mood in the State House could be summed up by a remark from Representative Cynthia Sweeney: “People won’t forget the Old Man. It’s just not there anymore.”

Back in Franconia, another summer passed without construction. As the snow began to fall, the Fund tried to reinvent itself. Members abandoned the corporate fundraising approach and changed the group’s name to “Friends of the Old Man of the Mountain/ Franconia Notch,” broadening its mission to include advocacy for the entire state park. They hope now that the move will help them sow the seeds of a grassroots movement among the loyal tourists and locals who were always the Old Man’s base, though it may prove too late for that. New Hampshire has survived almost seven years without its icon; the sense of urgency and necessity is gone. Without the legislators and millionaires, it’s now up to the people of New Hampshire to decide whether a monument is really worth it or whether it’s enough to just stand by and let the legacy of the Old Man of the Mountain speak for itself.

Not Forgotten | Present Day Reminders of the Old Man:

Old Man Tschotschkes The Old Man may be gone from the cliffside, but he lives on through a slew of kitschy knick-knacks. This bobblehead, for instance, commissioned by the New Hampshire Historical Society, may seem tacky, but it’s got nothing on one maker’s commemorative heat-sensitive coffee mug: The Old Man’s face disappears from the mountain every time you pour a fresh cup.

I Spy Something Granite The Old Man is unavoidable on New Hampshire’s roadways. License plates, highway signs, and police cruisers all bear his image. No effort has been made to replace them (thus far), although that may be due less to respect and more to the fact that the price of doing so would likely make the Old Man’s collapse the costliest natural disaster in New Hampshire history.

Keepsake Currency Minted three years before the collapse, the New Hampshire state quarter is a mini-monument unto itself. Not content with merely collecting them, fans of the Old Man have made these coins into medallions and watch faces. With White Mountain National Forest slated to appear on the state’s “America the Beautiful” quarter in 2013, it looks as though the Old Man will miss out on his chance for an encore appearance.

Read more:

Meet the Man Who Was the Caretaker to the Old Man of the Mountain

What Does The Old Man of the Mountain Look Like Today?