Old Man of the Mountain fell on May 3, 2003. What now?
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?
Building a memorial to something is always easier when people don’t really care about it. But when a memory is fresh, when there are a thousand different opinions about what made it special, how do you choose?
“I was skeptical at first about what we could do that would be appropriate,” remembers Hamilton, who, although retired since 2005, still promotes the Old Man as a member of the volunteer group. He recalls that those involved with the memorial made a bold assumption early on: that the people of New Hampshire actually wanted a monument, despite some evidence to the contrary: “I think there were like 3,000 people who e-mailed and wrote. The vast majority said Don’t do anything. Like 85 percent or something.”
For many, the Old Man was primarily a natural wonder. To them, any replica would be tawdry and pointless, just as if Old Faithful had stopped erupting and you’d replaced it with a firehose on a timer. Some felt that the rocks at the bottom of the cliff were monument enough.
But others argued that the Old Man was an integral part of New Hampshire’s identity. Along with the rallying cry “Live Free or Die,” it remains the state’s official emblem, evoking the flinty, self-sufficient values on which the state prides itself. It’s also everywhere. It’s on the state quarter, the license plates, the highway signs. It’s on badges and letterhead and seals. If the Old Man is to remain the face of New Hampshire (and it’s blasphemy to suggest it won’t), shouldn’t it have something real–something physical–to represent it?
The Fund members believed so, but they decided to build more than just a replica. The greatest monuments are those that provide visitors with some kind of experience: All the fluted columns and marbles steps in Washington, D.C., for example, don’t hold a candle to the stark power of picking out the names you know on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. If the Old Man were to mean anything to the generations who’d never see it, the Fund would need something like that–something that could make the memories live again.
They found it in a design by Shelly Bradbury and Ron Magers, a design that focuses on the Old Man’s most curious attribute: In a sense, it never really existed. The iconic stone profile was mostly an optical illusion. Up close, the Old Man looked like any other granite formation–jagged and random–but from one angle, it lined up to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Residents of the Notch often talk about the magic moment when, as they drove along I-93, the Old Man would emerge from the chaos of the mountain and then, just as quickly, disappear again.
After passing through a stone gateway, memorial visitors would come across five granite monoliths. From one spot at the head of the trail, they’d line up, and their irregular sides would combine to re-create the Old Man’s illusion: the chin, the nose, the prominent forehead. This trick would be used a second time in miniature at the shore of the lake. Tiny stones along the sides of poles arcing toward the mountain would, from one angle, place a phantom image of the profile back on the cliff where it once stood.
Reactions to the design were mixed. The $5 million price tag gave pause, but so did the fact that owing to the size of the monoliths, the granite blocks would have to be quarried in Vermont. There was also a vocal and persistent minority demanding that the profile be literally rebuilt on the mountainside.