In 1886, a professor named C.H. Hitchcock urged travelers to hurry up and see The Old Man of the Mountain because he might crumble soon.
A guidebook to the White Mountains quoted him urging people to see the Old Man soon. “I would advise any persons who are anxious to see the Profile for themselves, to hasten to the spot, for fear of disappointment,” he said.
The Old Man included a series of five granite ledges hanging precariously (it seemed) 1,200 feet above the floor of Franconia Notch. He measured 40 feet high from forehead to chin. Over the years, chains held him together. So did cement, plastic, steel rods and turnbuckles.
Hitchcock was finally vindicated 117 years later, when the Old Man collapsed on May 3, 2003. The loss so saddened the people of New Hampshire they left flower tributes at the base of the mountain.
The Old Man of the Mountain
For nearly 200 years, the Old Man of the Mountain was a wondrous tourist attraction. He also became a symbol in which New Hampshire took great pride.
New Hampshire native Daniel Webster perhaps best expressed what the Old Man represented. “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 Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”
The Old Man inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write “The Great Stone Face.” In the 1850 short story he described the rock formation as “a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness.”
Discovery of the Old Man
New Hampshire had achieved statehood only 17 years earlier when two surveyors from Franconia, N.H.– Luke Brooks and Francis Whitcomb — ‘discovered’ The Old Man of the Mountain in 1805.
They were working on the notch road, which farmers north of the notch used to go to markets in Portsmouth and Boston. No settlers may have seen the Old Man because of the dense underbrush and tree branches that met overhead.
One day in June, Luke Brooks woke up in camp, went to Profile Lake (then Ferrin’s Pond) for water and saw the sun illuminate the granite face of the Old Man of the Mountain.
That, at least, is the most widely accepted story of how the Old Man first came to the white settlers’ attention.
Demise of the Old Man
In the 1920s, freezing and thawing caused cracks to form in the upper part of the Old Man’s face. The state kept it together with chains. in 1957 the state appropriated $25,000 for more repairs, which included 20 tons of cement, steel rods, turnbuckles, a plastic covering and a gutter to divert runoff. The state highway and park departments fixed the patchwork each summer.
Then, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. on May 3, 2003, the Old Man fell to the ground.
A native of New Hampshire, Betsy Devine, wrote to the New York Times about his demise:
I’m having a lonely feeling, thinking of generations stretching ahead who won’t see what I saw, what Daniel Webster saw.
I also grew up enjoying clean air and clean water, a strong Bill of Rights and a sense of being part of one human family.
There wasn’t a thing I could have done to save the Old Man, but I’m going to keep working to pass that other stuff along.
A task force considered trying to recreate the cherished rock formation, but demurred.
A year later, coin-operated viewfinders showed what the cliff looked like before the Old Man collapsed. Then in 2020 the Friends of the Old Man of the Mountain completed a memorial to him. It consisted of a viewing platform along Profile Lake with steel profilers, which create what the profile looked like when aligned properly.
With thanks to The White Mountains: Alps of New England by Randall H. Bennett. Composite image of the Old Man By Rob Gallagher – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kelly using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16212839. Steel profiler By Dmoore5556 – I took this photo with my iPhone., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84277578
This story was updated in 2023.