Old Granite Face Proves the Futility of Man Against Nature

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No one really knows for sure when it happened. The best guess says the event occurred sometime between the dark night of Friday and the lonely early morning hours of Saturday. A moist fog had covered the Cannon Mountains since Thursday. The rain only intensified on Friday, with nearly an inch pouring down into the deep crevices of the wrinkles in the weary face of the Old Man.

But it was the fatal freeze that finally did him in. As the evening turned into night, the temperatures plunged twenty degrees to within two degrees of the all-time low of 22⁰ set in 1966. The wind and rain, the freezing and thawing, the brittle sun-borne baking had taken their toll. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t keep Humpty Dumpty from falling again.

And fall he did. His chin gave way first. That was the keystone. For more than twelve thousand years, the weight of the four granite slabs above it rested on this protruding piece. Perhaps giving new meaning to “sticking your chin out,” nearly 80% of this bottom piece projected into thin air with no visible means of support. The remainder of the chunk of rock – a mere two feet in total – rested on the mountain’s ledge. This is where the weight of those upper stones fell, holding the entire natural formation in place.

That final freeze proved too much. Between that and the erosion caused by centuries of water damage, the center of gravity of the chin shifted ever so slightly away from the cliff. The cheeks, the nose, the brow, and forehead immediately followed their foundation, tumbling down the nearly vertical precipice of Cannon Mountain.

Here endeth The Old Man of the Mountain, as he was called by the residents of the state of New Hampshire for two centuries. More important, here begins the lesson, for the fall of this granite edifice marked the end of man’s long battle against nature.

The five pieces of Conway red granite emerged in place following the Wisconsin Glaciation, the most recent Ice Age which ended about 8,000 BC. Seen from just the right perspective, these rocks appeared to form the profile of a face. The first recorded observation occurred in 1805 by a survey party working on laying out a new road. It found its way in American literature via both New Hampshire native Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Published in1850, Hawthorne’s work The Great Stone Face refers to the famous landmark as “a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness.”

It soon became apparent nature would eventually take away what it had wrought forth. The earliest known mention of this came from New Hampshire State Geologist Charles Henry Hitchcock who, in 1871, inspected the “Old Man.” He recommended anyone interested in visiting the site ought to do so soon since erosion of the granite made it likely the edifice was in danger of imminent collapse.

It took almost half a century for man to begin his battle with nature. In 1916 Governor Ronald Spaulding approved the use of three turnbuckles to stabilize the 70-ton “forehead.” The man who made this fix, a quarryman named Edward H. Geddes, warned “Sometime in the future the whole profile may slide into the valley, for there is a large fracture in the mountain some twenty feet back of the head.”

In many ways, 1955 became the high point for Old Granite Face. New Hampshire declared it “New Hampshire’s Vacation Jubilee Year.” President Eisenhower participated in a ceremony near Profile Lake, 1,200 feet below the famous formation, and a “Sesquicentennial of the Discovery of the Old Man of the Mountain by White Men” was honored with the issuance of a commemorative stamp.

All was not well in the mountain, however. In the previous year, New Hampshire State Geologist T. R. Myers noted that 43-foot-long fissure first discovered by Geddes had expanded by ¾ of an inch since 1937. This assessment alarmed the state legislature, which in 1945 had officially designated The Old Man the New Hampshire State Emblem. To rectify matters, state representatives approved in 1957 the spending of $25,000 to help preserve the Face. The following year, 20 tons of fast-drying cement, plastic cover, as well as steel rods and more turnbuckles were applied to the rock. In addition, repair crews installed a concrete gutter to redirect runoff. From then on, each summer teams from the state highway and park divisions would provide maintenance work.

But man’s fight against nature could only delay – not prevent – the inevitable. So it was to be, that at some point between midnight and 2 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, May 3, 2003, The Old Man’s famous faced vanished forever.

Daniel Webster once wrote of The Old Man of the Mountain, “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.”

The faithful solemnly gathered to assess the extent of the damage on Saturday, May 3, 2003. As the state crews hiked through the debris field that rainy, drizzly, foggy, morning, the clouds momentarily lifted, revealing the nakedness of the sheer cliff where The Old Man once resided. They could not help but reflect on Webster’s wise words. Not only does God Almighty make men, but he just as easily destroys men.

Here, really, ends the lesson.

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