We’ve all seen him. He’s the classic state symbol of New Hampshire. He’s on the state quarter, license plates, and on multiple items in just about every tourist shop in the state. If you’re on a New Hampshire highway, his is the face telling you which one. But suddenly, on a fateful May night in 2003, the Old Man was no more. Almost as quickly, a dedicated task force assembled to honor and commemorate his legacy with an Old Man of the Mountain memorial.
Their work ensured that though he was physically gone, the Old Man of the Mountain would never be forgotten.
It was Friday, May 2, 2003, a cloudy day in Franconia Notch. The Old Man was completely obscured, hidden away in the fog. A few hikers who had been brave enough to venture into the mist heard a crumbling sound during the night, but didn’t think much of it. It never crossed their minds that the great stone face wouldn’t be there when the fog lifted. It wasn’t until morning, when two park rangers noticed Old Man’s absence, that it became clear what that noise had been.
For many, the loss was personal. Some felt like they’d lost a family member, others, an ever-watchful guardian. Dave Neilson was the Old Man’s caretaker, a job he’d inherited from his father. He planned to pass the title down to his son Tommy someday. Now, that would never happen.
News of the collapse spread. Visitors flocked to the area to indulge their curiosity and pay their last respects, while the governor met with engineers and concerned citizens to discuss implications for the local economy. Tourists would hardly come to see the absence of the famed face, they thought. The word, “reconstruction” was tossed around, with some suggesting that a corporate sponsor be solicited to help. Someone had built Mt. Rushmore, after all. Why couldn’t they do that here?
But part of the Old Man’s majesty was that man took no part in his creation. He was engineered by mother nature, held up for years, it seemed, by the hand of God. No recreation could compete with that. A new man would simply be fake—a fraudulent shadow of what the Old Man once was.
Still, locals were worried. They had to do something. Formed from the stone that gives the Granite State its name, the Old Man represented solidarity, pride, and strength. He was the state symbol; they couldn’t just let him go.
Today, the Old Man of the Mountain memorial spot is Profiler Plaza, a park that stands as a testament both to the generosity of the New England community and to good ol’ Yankee ingenuity. The Old Man Of The Mountain Legacy Fund was the primary sponsor of the project, and its funds came mostly from private donors — some of whom are named on the plaza’s paving stones. The concept of the plaza is simple, yet creative. To see an artistic rendering of the Old Man, visitors stand in the plaza on stones marked with footprints and different heights (there’s even one marked 2’ for the little ones). In the sightline from that area to the mountainside where the Old Man once was, several precisely sculpted and perfectly located steel shapes have been mounted. From that vantage point, using those pieces, the Old Man returns home.
The seven sculpted pillars that recreate the Old Man were the brainchild of Shelly Bradbury and Ron Magers, whose design was chosen over 40 other applicants. This part of the monument was dedicated in June 2011, and the rest of the plaza was completed in the following years.
Small museum displays, one a short distance from the plaza and another at Cannon Mountain, educate the public about the Old Man’s legacy, the geology that created him, and the mechanics that kept him from falling much sooner.
Over the years, millions of travelers “visited” the Old Man, and thanks to the efforts of some dedicated champions, they still can. That story might be even more remarkable than the 25,000-year-old man himself. Through hard work and creative thinking, the Old Man of the Mountain’s New England legacy has achieved a durability that transcends metal and stone.
Read an earlier take on the Old Man’s collapse here. Do you remember the Old Man? Have you ever visited the Old Man of the Mountain memorial at Profiler Plaza? Let us know!
Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza. Exit 34B off NH I-93, Franconia, NH. (603) 505-8447; oldmanofthemountainlegacyfund.orgThis post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.