15 years later, the death of the N.H.’s Old Man of the Mountain remains painful

  • David and Deborah Nielsen rappel down the face of Old Man of the Mountain in 2000 to take measurements and perform annual maintenance. The Nielsen family took care of the Old Man for decades before his fall 15 years ago. Monitor file

  • Restoration work on the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia Notch, led by the Nielsen family, in this 1999 file photo. Monitor file

  • Niels Nielsen holds a miniature Old Man of the Mountain carving in his hands and around his neck. Lara Solt

  • Ellie Jardine (left) and her daughters Rose Jardine and Rachel King admire the sheer face where the Old Man of the Mountain had just fallen in Franconia in 2003. Monitor file

  • Franconia Notch Hotel owner Ed O’Brien wipes his eyes during a memorial service for the fallen Old Man of the Mountain held in Franconia Notch State Park. Several hundred people attended the eventm which featured a speech by Gov. Craig Benson and songs from the Whitefield Elementary School Senior Chorus. Monitor file

  • Crews work on the symbolic Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia in the 1990s. The state awoke May 3, 2003, to find the granite profile in Franconia Notch State Park had fallen off the cliff. AP file

  • Old postcards of Old Man on the Mountain. Monitor file

  • Four-year old Jacqueline Arsenault of Concord reacts to the new face of the Old Man on May 3, 2003, after her aunt Wendy Spain pointed it out. At left is Jennifer Spain. Their entire family came up for the day to commemorate to the fallen icon. “We thought we’d make a pilgrimage,” said Jim Spain (not pictured). Monitor file

  • Malcolm Sturtevant of Dalton gets a closer look at the new face of Old Man of the Mountain. He quoted Niels Nielson: "When the Lord is ready for the Old Man to come down, he'll come down not one second sooner." Ben Garvin—Concord Monitor

  • “Old Man of the Mountain,” photographic print, by Charles H. Sawyer, 1928.

  • Massive cables that once held the profile of the Old Man of the Mountain in place are seen at the top of Cannon Cliffs in Franconia in 2008. AP file

  • New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson looks at Cannon Mountain on Saturday, May 3, 2003, in Franconia after the historic "Old Man of the Mountian" broke off. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 5/2/2018 6:40:47 PM

His father’s ashes were buried in the Old Man’s left eye.

That should tell you a lot about David Nielsen of Belmont, who placed them there himself, a year before the Granite State lost a mighty profile on Cannon Mountain in Franconia.

And a portion of its identity as well.

“Losing the Old Man was as much of a loss as losing my father,” said Nielsen, who replaced his father as the Old Man of the Mountain’s caretaker in 1991. “It’s very difficult to deal with, but we had to move on. It’s hard to think about.”

It’s nearly impossible not to think about the Old Man on Thursday, because it’s the 15th anniversary of the May 3, 2003, collapse, after centuries of gravity and weather and water that froze, then thawed.

Granite Staters lost a granite friend, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who believes that the Old Man’s death – which amounted to a series of rock slabs piled on top of one another collapsing – is merely an overhyped piece of drama, pushed way out of proportion.

Kids had grown up zooming past the big guy on Interstate 93, always looking up and to the side, always angling their heads and necks just so, always feeling a sense of stability and consistency, as strong as the granite man himself.

It didn’t matter how many times you drove by, or whether you were a resident or not. You had to look.

“Every time,” said Amy Swift, who manages the nearby Flume Gorge. “If you were driving through, you would look up. You had your spot and you would always look up.”

Few felt the Old Man’s power more than Nielsen and his father, Niels Nielsen. That’s why dad’s ashes were spread there by his son.

As the younger Nielsen told me, “We had decided to do that ahead of time. It was a naturally concave area. It was the perfect place.”

Made the state emblem in 1945 and visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower 10 years later, the Old Man was not invulnerable to time and life.

Like worry lines that inevitably hit all of us, cracks in his forehead were detected in the late 1950s, which needed a lining of cement, and which kicked off a campaign to extend the Old Man’s life as long as possible.

The job went to Niels, a state bridge builder, and his crew, first in an unofficial capacity. Gov. John Sununu named him the official caretaker in 1987, and by then, Niels was taking David’s three older brothers to the site.

“He said he was going to give him a shave and a haircut,” David said.

He first remembers visiting the Old Man in 1969, at age 11, and he took over for his father 22 years later. He’d visit in the spring to see how the Old Man had fared during winter, and he’d return in the summer, roll up his sleeves and get to work.

His wife, Deborah, joined him. They’d use a climbing harness and a metal cable attached to a griphoist, turning their equipment into a manual elevator-like contraption that they used to lower themselves down from his forehead, 1,200 feet above Profile Lake.

They’d paint the four turnbuckles with silver asbestos paint to prevent the metal from rusting. They’d perform a strain test on those turnbuckles to make sure they stayed strong. They’d measure the length and width of this great face, 40 feet wide and 25 feet long, to see if it had begun to shift in any way, then find a way to adjust it.

They’d keep the Old Man, the figure on state road signs and quarters, healthy. Or at least as healthy as they could, fully aware that his grip on Cannon Mountain was loosening. The attraction never grew old in the eyes of children, but the Old Man himself did, in fact, age.

“I don’t know if we gave him an extra 10 or 100 years,” David Nielsen said. “But we believe we gave him more life.”

May 3, 2003, was cloudy and foggy. Swift and a colleague were making their rounds at the flume, cleaning the wayside. They looked up, as they always had.

They looked again. Maybe, Swift thought, she had misjudged her positioning, because the Old Man wasn’t visible. It made no sense, given how many times she had gone through this routine, so she hoped and she prayed and she searched for a different spot to stand.

“I could not believe I was looking at a sheer cliff,” Swift told me. “We had to report to the manager what we’d seen. Get things going.”

Later, two campers reported hearing a two-phase rumble, one immediately after the other, sometime after midnight, according to Dick Hamilton, the former president of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, who would go on to lead fundraising efforts to build what is now a tribute at Profiler Plaza.

Word the morning of May 3 spread fast, like those falling boulders. The media poured in, eager to cover the happening that changed the landscape of New Hampshire in more ways than one.

And then came the feeling that no one could shake, or deny. This was a funeral. This was the loss of a friend. An old, dear, close friend.

Jayne O’Connor is the president of White Mountains Attractions. Her husband was the manager of the flume when the Old Man collapsed, and the couple was part of the early-morning buzz that covered the North Country.

O’Connor rushed to the scene, skeptical yet frightened, shortly after her husband called. She stood on a boulder in Franconia, her eyes scanning.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be,’ ” O’Connor told me. “Maybe it was the lighting or something, so I kept looking, but all I could see was turnbuckles hanging over the edge.”

She called the director of the state park, the governor’s office, the state police. Soon, the grieving process began.

“It’s like when someone dies,” O’Connor said.

“It was very much like losing a loved one,” Swift added. “A lot of people over the years say they feel that way. He was a symbol here for everyone in the state.”

There’s a memorial there now, a plaza with 1,100 paver stones and 10 benches, each made from granite and paid for through private donations.

There are also seven long, hockey-stick-shaped pillars called profilers, which help visitors visualize the Old Man and where he lived since his discovery in the early part of the 19th century.

A tribute will be held Thursday at Profiler Plaza starting at 11. “It’s the only time you will ever go to a funeral for a rock,” O’Connor said. “It’s like Fenway Park burning down.”

No one was hit harder by this loss than Nielsen, a bailiff at Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord. May 3 is a dark day for him and Deborah, even without a special number attached to the anniversary, as is the case this year.

They pay tribute to their late friend – and Nielsen’s father – every year around this time.

“It’s similar to what you would do if you visit a cemetery,” Nielsen told me. “Very emotional and a private thing for my wife and I to do that week.”

When asked where specifically he goes and what’s said, Nielsen was solemn and tight-lipped, like the Old Man himself.

“Each May we go visit and pay our respects. I’d like to leave it at that,” he said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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