Ten years after NH's Old Man of the Mountain

Region’s businesses still picking up the pieces a decade after the Old Man Of The Mountain fell
AP Photo
In this photo from May 3|!!| 2003|!!| then-Gov. Craig Benson is seen reviewing the scene at Cannon Mountain in Franconia|!!| where The Old Man of the Mountain had broken off.

It’s not of the magnitude of the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy, but Bill O’Connor is one of the many people who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that the symbol and face of New Hampshire had fallen from his perch on Cannon Mountain.

“We were getting ready to open the visitors center,” said O’Connor, park manager for Franconia Notch State Park. A pair of park employees discovered the familiar profile was missing while on an early-morning work detail at the wayside parking lot designated for Old Man viewing.

“I saw them running down the gorge walk from the parking lot and they said, ‘The Old Man’s gone!’ I said, ‘Right — this had been pulled on me before.’ So we got into the truck and headed north to the wayside and, sure enough, it was gone.”

Ten years after that rainy, gray morning of May 3, 2003, O’Connor still remembers what went though his mind as he scanned the familiar cliff for the face that was no longer there. But he thought it better not to verbalize it.

“You can’t print it,” he said, while recalling that he had by then been a park employee for 20 years. “Just a piece of my life was gone,” he said a moment later.

The famous rock formation that inspired a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (“The Great Stone Face”) and a tribute ascribed to Daniel Webster (“in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men”) came tumbling down sometime between nightfall on Friday and early morning Saturday.

Word spread quickly from person to person and phone to phone. O’Connor immediately called his wife Jayne, then the operations manager and now the president of White Mountain Attractions, a nonprofit agency promoting tourist destinations in the area.

Jayne O’Connor started making phone calls of her own. It was, she recalled, “like a death — all the appropriate phone calls you make when someone has passed away.”

Sudden shock

Her first call was to Dick Hamilton in Littleton. Hamilton, then the president of White Mountain Attractions, had been awake but a short time when he got the call.

He made the 10-mile trip from Littleton to Franconia Notch in about eight minutes, he recalled. Little more than 12 hours earlier, Hamilton had made his nightly trip through the notch on the way home from his North Woodstock office, acknowledging the craggy old face on the cliff with his customary, “Good night, boss” as he passed by. The next morning he was staring at the wreckage and reminding himself of what he had long known.

“I knew in my heart and my gut the Old Man was going to come down and that all the efforts to save him, were temporary. It was inevitable,” said Hamilton, now a retiree and head of the Granite State Legacy Fund to build a permanent memorial to the Old Man.

The suddenness of the fall came as a shock even to those who, like Hamilton, were well aware of the cracks and fissures in the old granite head and the elaborate efforts to preserve the venerated image.

Time and erosion had taken their toll and the first turnbuckle to keep the rocks in place had been installed nearly a century ago. Cinderblocks were later used to fill a crack in the old man’s head and a weatherproof cover put over it. More turnbuckles were added.

Starting in 1960, the work done by Department of Transportation engineer Niels Nielsen and his son David added years and even decades to the Old Man’s life.

In the end, nature had its way. The rock formation that lasted for unknown centuries had disappeared overnight.

Rich McLeod, longtime director of the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation, was at his home in Portsmouth when he got a call from his sister-in-law, telling him of the Old Man’s demise.

“The initial thought was the symbol of state of New Hampshire has just crumbled, and there’s going to be serious consideration as to what needs to be done and how to go about it,” he said.

His next thought was about safety of people in Franconia Notch.

“The notch is landslide-prone to begin with, and if the old man came down and if it was that kind of avalanche weather, I was worried about the whole notch.”

Financial impact

The only avalanche following the Old Man’s fall was the crush of news media that soon arrived to bring the story to the world, with TV cameras trained on the empty space where the grand old head had reigned.

When the excitement was over, state tourism officials, as well as owners of hotels, inns and restaurants began to ponder the impact the Old Man’s passing might have on the flow of visitors and their dollars to North Country businesses and to state coffers.

“It had a huge emotional impact on everyone here,” said Nancy Henderson, owner with her husband Lon of Sunset Hill House in Sugar Hill. “It also had a significant financial impact to the tourism business. It was the centerpiece of New Hampshire, and all of a sudden it was gone.”

Gone, too, were some of the tour buses bringing visitors to the White Mountains.

“We almost lost the entire series of tours because there was no Old Man,” said Henderson.

There have always been plenty of other reasons for people to visit Franconia Notch, whether for skiing Cannon or riding its aerial tramway, hiking the Lafayette range or enjoying the natural beauty of the basin or the Flume Gorge.

Ticket sales to the Flume and tramway, however, have declined since 2002, the last of the Old Man’s summers. That year, 172,458 visited the Flume and 98,499 rode the tramway. In 2003, that dropped to 147,301 for the Flume and 80,718 on the tramway. Both attractions hit their low points in 2008, with 124,445 going to the gorge and 73,000 taking the tramway.

Last year, 135,800 and 81,503 people visited the Flume and tramway, respectively, still well below the 2002 numbers.

“We did see a lot of people coming up to, in their words, pay their respects” to the fallen icon, said Amy Bassett, assistant director of the state’s Division of Tourism and Travel Development. Since then, “I think it’s fluctuated. I don’t know how much you can say is because of the Old Man and how much is because of the weather and the economy.”

For tourists both within the United States and abroad, the Old Man’s fame has outlived the news of his passing.

“We probably run into 10 or 12 a day, asking, ‘Where can see it?’” said John DeVivo, general manager of the ski area and aerial tramway.

Younger visitors may have missed the news of a decade ago, DeVivo said, while others, including travelers from Europe and Asia, may have either never heard or have since forgotten about the Old Man’s fall.

Barbara Ashley, who remembers stops to see the Old Man from the time she was 5 years old, is at least glad the old mountaineer survived to the age of the Internet.

“I know it sounds like a strange thing to say, but the timing was great,” said the executive director of the Franconia Notch Chamber of Commerce. Even without the Old Man as a draw, businesses in the area have been able to increase their marketing efforts and highlight the other attractions in the region on their websites and through Facebook and other social media, she said.

Kevin Johnson, owner of the Gale River Motel in Franconia Notch, sees the Old Man forever linked to the state’s retail and tourist trade.

“There will still be coffee cups sold with his image on them. His image will still be on license plates and signs, his memory will be immortalized,” said Johnson. “It’s sort of like Elvis. When Elvis Presley died, Graceland became a place to make a pilgrimage to honor his memory. I think Franconia Notch has become Graceland to the Old Man.”

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