Everywhere you look in New Hampshire, you’ll see one of the Granite State’s iconic landmarks – the Old Man of the Mountain. It’s featured on the New Hampshire license plate, road signs, and even the state quarter! But how did the Old Man of the Mountain become part of New Hampshire’s legacy and what happened to him?
The Birth of the Old Man of the Mountain
The Old Man of the Mountain is also known as the “Great Stone Face” by the Abenaki and “the Profile.” Located in Franconia Notch, we have to go back thousands of years to the Wisconsin glaciation and the ice age. For centuries, glaciers over a mile thick covered New England. When the temperatures began to warm, the ice started a thawing and freezing cycle that created erosion in the granite bedrock that shaped the unique features of the Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Man overlooked Profile Lake from 1,200 feet above and was approximately 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
The Life of the Old Man of the Mountain
The Old Man of the Mountain was first discovered and written by white settlers in 1805 when Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks were surveying the area for the notch road. While farmers frequently traveled over the notch road to the markets in Boston, no one had seen the Old Man due to the dense underbrush. Luke Brooks woke up in camp early one morning and went to Profile Lake to gather water for breakfast and saw the reflection of the granite face of the Old Man in the lake.
Of course, the legacy of the Old Man of the Mountain predates white settlers by hundreds of years. Known as Stone Face, the Abenaki believe that a human named Nis Kizos was born during an eclipse. He became a great leader and met a beautiful Iroquois woman named Tarlo at a Kchi Mahadan and fell in love. Tarlo had to return to her village to care for her sickened family and Nis Kizos promised he would live at the top of the mountain waiting for her. Tarlo waited day and night for her through the winter, but unfortunately, Tarlo dies in her birth village from the sickness. Gezosa, Nis Kizos’s brother, went to retrieve Nis Kizos in the spring but he was nowhere to be found. As Gezosa was descending the mountain, he looked back and saw that Nis Kisoz became part of the mountain as a stone face to continue looking for his love.
The Old Man of the Mountain became famous across the country because of Daniel Webster who famously wrote: “Men hand out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch; and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”
Even Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about the Old Man in his 1850 “The Great Stone Face.” In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant visited the Old Man. Over the decades the stone formation began to deteriorate. Governor Rolland H. Spaulding began efforts to preserve the Old Man in 1916. In 1945, the Old Man became the official New Hampshire State Emblem and in 1965, a state highway worker named Niels Nielsen became the unofficial guardian of the Old Man of the Mountain. He became the official caretaker in 1987 followed by his son, David Nielsen, in 1991.
The Death of the Old Man of the Mountain
Over the years, the harsh White Mountains weather started to damage the rock formation. In the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s forehead was repaired with chains. In 1957, more extensive “surgery” was conducted on the Old Man to save his iconic granite face. Despite many years of repairs, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed between midnight and 2:00 am on May 3, 2003, leaving the residents of the Granite State to mourn its most iconic symbol.
Despite the loss of the Old Man of the Mountain, its legacy lives on in the White Mountains. On the first anniversary of the collapse, the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund (OMMLF) installed coin-operated viewfinders near the base where you can see before and after of how the Old Man of the Mountain used to appear. OMMLF completed the Old Man of the Mountain Memorial along the Profile Lake walkway in September 2020 so the Old Man’s legacy could live on forever for future generations to enjoy.
Museum and Historic Site
Today you can visit the Old Man of the Mountain museum and historic site in Franconia Notch State Park. Take Exit 34B off I-93, drive towards Cannon Mountain and then follow the signs. At the museum you’ll discover historic memorabilia and photos about the care, repair and promotion of the state’s official symbol. The museum is open May through late October and admission is free. At the Profiler Plaza historic site you will experience the interactive sculpture that allows you to “see” what the Old Man of the Mountain looked like. There are also several informational plaques located along the trail with history of the mountain and species that were found in the area.