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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Symbol of rugged N.H. collapses

A quasi-religious symbol of New Hampshire strength and stoicism since 1805, a rock formation known as the "Old Man on the Mountain" collapsed on Saturday.

The 40 foot by 25 foot face on Cannon Mountain in Franconia, N.H. was discovered in 1805, during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, and was thus seen for several decades as the face of Thomas Jefferson, according to professor of art history Bob McGrath.

The image then took on quite a different meaning after Nathaniel Hawthorne published a story about it titled "The Great Stone Face" in his collection of short stories, "Twice Told Tales."

According to McGrath, Hawthorne portrayed the face as a Christ-like visage pronouncing judgment on all those who walk beneath it.

In Hawthorne's tale a number of corrupt characters -- many who appear to be based on famous politicians of the day -- pass underneath the face. All of them merit only frowns.

The protagonist of the story, a simple rural boy named Ernest, walks beneath it and earns a smile. Ernest's triumph, according to McGrath, represents the purity of country people over corrupt city politicians.

Daniel Webster, class of 1801, also spoke about the face in religious terms: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades: shoe makers 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."

In Edward Roth's 1850 novel Christus Judex (Christ the Judge), Roth describes the work of an Italian Renaissance painter who journeys across the continent looking for a perfect model for his altarpiece. The Old Man, again serving as a symbol of Christ, eventually served as the painter's model, McGrath said.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the face was regarded less and less as a religious symbol and more as a tourist attraction.

The Old Man has been shown on the quarter as a symbol of New Hampshire, on state license plates and on highway signs.

The end of the nineteenth century also saw the physical deterioration of the face. Both McGrath and history professor Jere Daniell '55 indicated that chicken wire and bolts were used to hold the face together.

It is unclear what finally brought down the Old Man. David Wunsch, the state geologist, told The Valley News that he suspected that the constant erosion that takes place over time caused his demise.

The state of New Hampshire has spent approximately $10,000 annually over the past several years maintaining the Old Man, according to the Valley News.

Daniell said that the expansion caused by melting of ice on the face may have caused the structure to finally crumble.

"The point when the ice melts and reforms is most precarious for rock formations," Daniell explained.

There have been no reports of unusual seismic activity in the region, officials told the Valley News.

New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson told media yesterday that his office would be willing pay for the Old Man's restoration or for a memorial commemorating him.

McGrath, however, said that any attempt to restore the Old Man would be a "grave mistake." Any such attempts would be "artificial" and "kind of like Disneyland."