Old Man of the Mountain fell on May 3, 2003. What now?
Read more: Caretaker to the Old Man of the Mountain
We can assume that it came down with a crash on May 3, 2003, though in truth we don’t know. Some kids camping nearby heard something that might have been the collapse, but it’s impossible to be certain, because, in what is likely its only act of irony, the Old Man of the Mountain–that New Hampshire icon that millions gawked at during its long life–departed this world without a single witness.
A storm was rolling through Franconia Notch in the early hours of May 3, 2003. The churning clouds scraped low along the valley walls, obscuring the Old Man’s perch on Cannon Mountain. Although it’s tempting to say that Old Stone Face chose a rare moment of privacy to die in dignity, really the storm just brought one raindrop too many.
The five granite ledges that made up the Old Man had always held only a tenuous grasp on the mountainside. Forty feet tall and weighing five tons, the massive structure remained jutting out from the cliff only because, by some miracle of stacking, its center of gravity lay within the meager two feet where the lowest slab (the “chin”) rested on solid ground. But through centuries of erosion, that invisible line had inched closer and closer to the abyss until, finally, the Old Man slipped off.
The clouds soon passed, and the sun rose over the bucolic alpine playground of Franconia Notch State Park. A trail crew of two rangers, Amy Seers and Cynthia Savoy, were the first people to realize what had happened. They rushed back to headquarters and sprang the news on their skeptical boss, Bill O’Connor. “My biggest fear was that someone had gotten hurt,” he recalls. “They told me that the Old Man had fallen down and I said, ‘Huh, I’ve heard that one before.'”
There had been enough erroneous claims of the symbol’s collapse that O’Connor made the rangers drive back up there with him. They met up at the Old Man viewing area on the northbound side of I-93. After taking it all in, they pulled out their phones and started dialing.
Although the Old Man was the symbol of the entire state, it belonged to the people of the Notch. To this day they refer to the Old Man as “he,” not “it.” It was a constant companion, a part of the family. As Bill O’Connor put it, “He was like a grandfather.”
So after the rangers’ first frantic phone calls, news of the collapse spread through the community the way news of a death does, each person calling his or her phone tree of friends and family, breaking the news gently over and over again.
One of the first people notified was Dick Hamilton. As president of the White Mountains Attractions tourism group, he’d spent 35 years promoting Franconia Notch and was the Old Man’s de facto head of PR. He arrived within minutes and, like a grieving son, put off his mourning to plan the funeral. He commandeered the viewing area as a press staging ground; then, without any idea of who would pay for it, he ordered a helicopter. The press trucks streaming up I-93 would want a closer look, and he was determined to give the Old Man the viewing it deserved.
Also blazing up the highway was Dave Nielsen, the Old Man’s second and final caretaker. He’d gotten word while at a meeting in Belmont, 65 miles to the south. Nielsen and Hamilton, two old friends who’d spent much of their lives maintaining the Old Man, met up and boarded the helicopter together. They were the first to get a closer look–before the state park head, before the governor, before even CNN. They could all wait their turn.
The helicopter arced upwards and came as close to the bare cliff face as possible. The granite there had been ground to a powder, making it look as though covered in dirt. It was a quiet flight as both men tried to diagnose what had gone wrong. “I needed to know: Did I do something to cause this to happen?” Nielsen recalls. “Did I fail to do something to cause this to happen?” After 10 minutes, the helicopter banked away, and both men spun around to take one final look.
Rarely is a symbol so emblematic of a state destroyed so fast, and the media were eager to know how New Hampshire would respond. Governor Craig Benson made a brief speech in which he did what every leader does when an event renders him powerless: He promised quick, decisive action. “This closes a very long chapter in New Hampshire history, but we’ll begin a new chapter immediately,” he said. “The Old Man is counting on us not to forget his legacy, and we won’t let him down.”
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