The Day the Old Man Fell: ‘There is Emptiness and Devastation’

Lorna Colquhoun was the first reporter in Franconia Notch after the fall of the Old Man of the Mountain. Her report and photos appeared in the New Hampshire Sunday News on May 4, 2003.

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Before the fall

FRANCONIA  – In the cover of darkness and a shroud of rain and fog, the Old Man of the Mountains gave up his stony, silent vigil as the beloved and venerable symbol of the Granite State sometime Friday night.

Just when the five huge rocks that formed a profile of a wizened old man, complete with a jutting chin and strong brow, fell from the perch where it has gazed southward for a millennia is not known. For the two previous days, Franconia Notch was doused with unrelenting spring rains, its upper elevations frosted when the temperature went below freezing.

But those are the elements that formed him some 25,000 years ago and which many thought he would weather for as long as they were around. Heartache, tears, sorrow and sadness were the order of the day yesterday, as people drove through the Notch, seeing for themselves that the mighty and indestructible profile of granite had indeed come down.

Amy Cyrs and Cynthia Savoy, who work just down the road at the Flume, were the first to make the heartbreaking discovery yesterday morning, while they were doing their daily check of the Notch’s waysides for trash.

“We pulled into the Old Man (northbound parking lot) and looked up – that’s the first thing we always do,” she said. “We looked up and he wasn’t

there. We did a side-step – we looked at each other. It was unreal – a strange and unreal feeling that something that has been there all your life is gone. I can’t believe it.”

The Old Man’s profile was made up of five ledges. According to state park information, three were anchored deep into the cliff, supporting two above it, and measured 40 feet from chin to forehead. It was formed during the last ice age, a natural sculpture shaped by wind, rain and frost.

The first photo taken the morning after the collapse.

The first photo taken the morning after the collapse.

Efforts have been ongoing for over a century to preserve it, but in the end, nature took its course.

“It’s hard to describe how it looks,” said Dick Hamilton, president of White Mountains Attractions in North Woodstock. “You can see dirt and debris in the places where he fell – there was a lot of dirt and debris in the cracks, most likely that happened before they started sealing it 10 or 15 years ago.”

Preservation of the Old Man began in earnest in the early 1900s. In 1915, a system of turnbuckles held the profile onto the side of Cannon Mountain. Yesterday morning, those turnbuckles dangled uselessly, bent and twisted from their last efforts to hang onto the Old Man.

Dick Hamilton reacts upon seeing the empty ledge.

Dick Hamilton reacts upon seeing the empty ledge.

 

“I’m not sure we’ll ever know” what caused the collapse of the profile, said David Nielsen, the caretaker of the Old Man. “It’s been a wet spring with heavy rains. The dirt in the cracks absorb water like a sponge – it’s a natural occurrence here.”

At 8:30 yesterday morning, the previous days’ heavy rainstorms gave way to a beautiful blue sky day. Few first noticed that the Old Man was gone. Vehicles continued to their north and southbound destinations, unaware. But as word spread, traffic increased, lines of it slowing down, their passengers gazing upward, before being moved along by police.

“I never thought I would see this in my lifetime,” said Francine Hilliard of North Woodstock, who came to the Notch to view the collapse. “You take something like this for granted, but right now, I feel like I’m in mourning. There are a lot of us who have lived and worked here and earned our wages off the back of the Old Man.”

George Bald, the commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, and Richard McLeod, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, headed up from the seacoast as soon as they heard. Both flew in a helicopter to view the damage.

“When we drove through the Notch, I didn’t look up,” Bald said. “I couldn’t look up. When (McLeod) called me, in my mind, I thought, ‘This is an awful cruel joke.’ But I knew from his voice that this had happened.”

Franconia Notch is the gem of the New Hampshire parks system. Millions come through it in all seasons to visit the Flume Gorge, to ski Cannon Mountain, view foliage and to see the natural and splendid wonder of the Old Man of the Mountains.

Thousands of visitors came to site to remember.

Thousands of visitors came to site to remember.

Winnie Bowersox of North Andover, Mass., was on a retreat to the White Mountains yesterday with a group of women from her bible class.

“I had never seen the Old Man and we thought we would take a ride through the Notch,” she said. “Our waitress at breakfast said that the Old Man had fallen – it was very tragic. I said that I had never gotten to see him. They said ‘You never will.”‘

Along with sadness, there was disbelief among those who had gathered to see what remained in the place of the Old Man.

“There is devastation and emptiness,” McLeod said. “Three cables are all that remains. It’s a sad feeling of emptiness – this is the symbol of our state. I had never thought about it (coming down), and I was hopeful it never would. We’ll deal with it. We’ll assess the situation and determine why it came down.”

From the air, he said, he was not able to distinguish any of the rocks from the formation from one another. The cliffs below where the chin was are scarred. Hamilton surmised that the rocks disintegrated.

More than just a formation of granite, the Old Man gave New Hampshire a sense of stability and solidness, particularly in the past couple of years, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and war.

“Day or night, I would always look at the Old Man,” Cyrs said. “Night or day, he’s always been there. Without fail, I have always said ‘Hi’ to him on my way to work or if I was going south, out of state. I would tell him to watch over everyone. It was a symbol and I felt better. Now that its gone, it’s left me feeling a little bit afraid.”

As the world changed around the Old Man, his presence was comforting.

“It’s always been there,” said Jayne O’Connor of Franconia, one of the first to see that it had collapsed. “I looked up there and said, ‘Oh my God.’ I feel a little less protected – a little less watched over.”

Hamilton, who has been at the helm of White Mountains Attractions, which promotes tourism in the region, for over 30 years, said he always spoke to the Old Man.

“When I would drive by on my way home from work, I’d always say ‘Goodnight, Boss,”‘ he said. “(Friday) night, I was on my way home and I couldn’t see him, so I said, ‘Goodnight, Boss, wherever you are.’ I never thought I would see this day.”

The Old Man was created by nature. There was sentiment among many that if its broken, why not just put it together again?

“How do you recreate a natural symbol?” Bald asked. “Nature made it and took it away. We need to take time and figure out how to deal with it. I will talk with the Speaker, the Senate president and the governor to figure out where to go from here.”

Bald said he expects to receive condolence cards, as Granite Staters struggle with how to deal with the loss of a state treasure.

“That’s exactly what it feels like – like you have just lost someone close,” Bald said.

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