The Old Man and the Irresistible Force of Geology

(This article appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader on May 6, 2003. LJC)

FRANCONIA – The headline was bold and it stretched across the front page of The New Hampshire Sunday News 45 years ago.

Old Man Doomed

An accompanying story carried the headline, “He Would Die Impressively but Dangerously.” A photo of the Great Stone Face was captioned, “Famous face to fall? Yes, say state engineers – the Old Man of the Mountain is doomed and no amount of costly engineering safeguards can prevent the ultimate calamity. It is only a question of time – and no man knows when.”

As prophetic as that news seems 45 years later, in the end, the Old Man of the Mountain, icon of the Granite State, did collapse, but without the fury detailed in the articles.

The day after the Old Man's collapse ~ 2003

The day after the Old Man’s collapse ~ 2003

The story, written by Sunday News writer George Woodbury, was based on an interview with Russell Tobey, the popular director of state parks in charge of preserving the profile at the time.

“Engineers studying the project have informed Mr. Tobey that the same forces of nature that carved the face on the cliff of Cannon Mountain are now irresistibly at work to destroy it,” the article reads. “It might happen this afternoon or many years hence.”

Scenarios for the Old Man’s demise included a slight earthquake that would set off a big slide, a dynamite explosion or sonic boom.

On the last day of the Old Man’s reign before he collapsed early Saturday, heavy rains pelted Franconia Notch and high winds blew through it. In the morning, frost dusted the higher elevations of the Notch.

“Such a disaster to the Old Man could cause an avalanche to sweep down through the Notch,” according to the article. “It would almost certainly result in obliteration of Profile Lake, state engineers feared.”

Landslides wrought havoc through the years in Franconia Notch and 50 years ago, they were of concern.

Landslides had been recorded in Franconia Notch since 1826 and in the 20th century, there were at least eight major slides, six of which crossed the road. In October 1938, 15 feet of debris slid over the highway. In June 1948, two slides on either end of Profile Lake came down within twenty minutes of one another.

A little over a year after this article appeared, the largest slide in modern times happened on Oct. 24, 1959. Some 200 feet of highway was covered to depth of 27 feet and required more than three days of around-the-clock work to clear it, according to historical information.

Robert Sullivan, an engineer with the state Department of Forestry and Recreation, told Woodbury how the collapse could cause an avalanche.

Whenever a talus slope of rubble builds up under crumbling cliff, such as under the profile … the fallen boulders come to rest at approximately an angle of 45 degrees,” according to the article. “Torrential rains may turn the underlying dirt to slippery mud and start a slide or a massive fall on top of the slope may start it rolling.”

Officials were concerned at how much damage would occur in the Notch after the fall of the profile.

“When and if the massive profile of the Old Man collapses, no one can accurately foresee the resultant damage to the Notch and the highway running through it,” according to the article. “However, officials say such a heavy fall as this might produce an avalanche of major proportions, even for the White Mountains where they have happened many times before.”

The Legislature that year set aside $25,000 “in an all out attempt to arrest disintegration slowly progressing every year through the action of frost and earth movement.”

“The best that engineering can do is postpone the day when the austere granite profile, so long a symbol of the state of New Hampshire and its people, will fall and ruin the Notch, Tobey asserts,” according to the article.

Sullivan agreed.

“There is no way of calculating how long we can delay the fall of the Old Man,” he told Woodbury. “There is absolutely no way of knowing. It can crash down at anytime.”

That year’s plans for the engineering program, according to the article, was for placement of a waterproof cap for the Old Man, “which, it is hoped, will further delay the hand of nature, which once, long ago, created this mammoth sculpture that now seems bent on its destruction.”

Tobey told Woodbury that the Old Man would one day collapse, in spite of efforts to save it.

“All the engineering skill in the world – and all the money – Mr. Tobey commented, cannot build back forever the irresistible force of geology with all the time eternity has its disposal,” Woodbury wrote.

He concluded his story with Daniel Webster’s verse about God Almighty hanging his sign in Franconia Notch that “he makes men.”

“Now we know, that some day and in spite of all our wealth and engineering skill, that Great Stone Sign will fall.”

By Lorna Colquhoun

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