Old Man of the Mountain fell on May 3, 2003. What now?
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.”
Essentially, he promised that something would be built by someone somehow. The particulars? Well, they’d figure those out later.
It’s impossible to talk about the ensuing years of struggle that defined the effort to memorialize the Old Man without acknowledging up front that many people find the whole affair ridiculous. On its surface, this is the story of an argument over the best way to carve one rock into a monument to another.
In the days following the collapse, Benson appointed a task force to formulate a proper remembrance. The move was met with sarcasm by some. In his caustically titled column “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” Boston Globe writer Brian McGrory mocked the people who were driving to the Notch to leave flowers and notes. “Good riddance,” he wrote. “Wipe away the crocodile tears … Rock slides happen.”
But those who mourned the Old Man did so sincerely. It had been a tourist destination for almost as long as New Hampshire had been a state, and in their travels people had built personal connections to the symbol. In an online scrapbook hosted by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, mourners left story after story of childhood road trips, first dates, and anniversaries spent in the shadow of the Old Man. “I grew up with the Old Man and I am devastated at the loss,” commented one poster, Jocelyn Garlington. “It brought me much pleasure to stop and admire him with my own children just as my parents did for me. It’s just unfortunate that I took it for granted to some degree, thinking it would be there for my grandchildren to see someday.”
The Old Man of the Mountain was a constant in people’s lives. When it fell, it was a stark reminder that nothing, not even granite, lasts forever. So although it’s easy to roll your eyes when proponents of the monument speak of the collapse in the same breath as the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, remember: Maybe not for you, but for them.
The state of New Hampshire bet heavily on the extent of these emotions when, on the first anniversary of the collapse, Benson’s task force announced its plan to build a memorial. In the Granite State tradition of low taxes and small government, the responsibility for designing and constructing the monument was placed in the hands of a small group of unpaid and unfunded volunteers. A collection of businessmen, bureaucrats, and dignitaries from the Franconia region, the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund was commissioned with little more than goodwill to bank on. It would prove to be an unpredictable and double-edged commodity.
The frustrating thing about memory is that it isn’t concrete. The Old Man was easy to define when it hung from the cliff. It had mass and size. If someone asked you what it was, you could go to the shores of Profile Lake and point at it. That was the Old Man. But what was it now?