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N.H. remembers Old Man of the Mountain

The majestic Old Man of the Mountain kept watch over New Hampshire for thousands of years. Richard and Carolynn Hansen missed it by five months.
Image: Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire
Old Man of the Mountain, then and now. The granite formation continues to crumble and lose its distinctive profile. Jim Cole / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The majestic Old Man of the Mountain kept watch over New Hampshire for thousands of years. Richard and Carolynn Hansen missed it by five months.

The couple from Ukiah, Calif., had wanted to see New England's fall foliage for years, so in early 2003, they booked their flight and plotted their itinerary. High on their list of destinations was the Old Man of the Mountain — a massive, naturally formed granite profile that had been attracting tourists to Franconia Notch since the early 1800s and had become integral to the state's identity.

And they weren't deterred when the 40-foot-high ledges crumbled 1,200 feet to the ground just months before their arrival.

"It was a given that you have to go there. It's like a pilgrimage," said Richard Hansen, 54, the marketing director for an Internet service provider. "So in spite of the fact that Mother Nature had taken its toll on it, we still made the trek over there to make sure we saw it, or at least get an idea and perception of where it was."

The Old Man crumbled on May 3, 2003, and five years later, it's tough to get a clear picture of how the collapse has affected tourism in the White Mountains or to predict whether a planned memorial for the site will continue to lure visitors. But the few statistics available, coupled with anecdotal evidence, suggest that that unlike the Hansens, some tourists are staying away.

Sales at an ice cream shop near the Old Man site dropped 68 percent between the summers of 2002 and 2006, according to statistics from the state Department of Resources and Economic Development. The number of riders on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway decreased 25 percent, and visitors to the Flume, a natural granite gorge featuring waterfalls, glacial boulders and historic covered bridges, fell 23 percent.

Mark Okrant, director of the Institute for New Hampshire Studies at Plymouth State University, notes that all those numbers already were declining before the Old Man fell and that other factors — mainly weather — could account for the fluctuations. But he does believe tourism has suffered.

"Anecdotally, we are hearing that business has not been good since the Old Man fell in the communities immediately north of the notch. And frankly, while I was skeptical about the impact right after it happened, I am no longer skeptical," said Okrant, whose institute researches state tourism trends. "I do believe that the Old Man's falling has had a negative impact on the visitor traffic north of Franconia Notch."

Dick Hamilton, who retired in 2005 after decades spent promoting the White Mountains as a tourist destination, said even before the Old Man's fall, he noticed a reduced interest in the Old Man and the state's other natural attractions.

"Tourists are more into active tourism rather than passive tourism. They aren't necessarily content to just drive through something and look at things. They want to get involved, take a hike, take a walk, take a bike ride."

Hamilton is on the board of directors of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, which is raising money to build a memorial. Construction hasn't begun yet, but the design calls for five granite stones — including the largest ever quarried in North America — to be placed in such a way that when they are viewed from a raised platform, they merge into one form evoking the outline of the rock profile.

In addition to the stone monoliths, a gateway consisting of stones held in place by cables and turnbuckles will be constructed to honor the Old Man's caretakers, who used such equipment to secure its uppermost rocks for decades.

The third element of the memorial will be a new park at the water's edge featuring steel cannon-like "profilers" that will allow viewers to line up the sculptures' irregular edges and "see" the outline of the Old Man on the cliff where it once appeared.

"What we're trying to do there is to make it into an activity-oriented facility rather than just a thing on the mountain," said Hamilton.

Jayne O'Connor, who succeeded Hamilton as president of White Mountain Attractions, is optimistic that the memorial will attract new visitors to the region, and the 16 attractions her company promotes. She said those attractions, which include Santa's Village, Lost River Gorge and the Polar Caves, had their best season in 15 years in 2007.

"As far as the Old Man goes, we now sort of have our own Mayflower, or one of those attractions that are long gone but are remembered and people still visit the sites," she said.

In the tourism industry, the effort to hang onto to an attraction after its physical loss is known as "attraction residuality," explains David Weaver of the University of South Carolina's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. In 2005, he and a colleague featured the Old Man of the Mountain in a research paper highlighting the need for tourist attractions to plan for disasters.

He noted that "there was a 100-year history of trying to shore that thing up," he said of the Old Man. "We know there was gravity at work there and weathering, and so it really was just a matter of time."

Weaver said that New Hampshire's efforts to memorialize the attraction should be kept "tasteful because with the passage of time, it's really going to lose its power as an iconic attraction. For people who've never seen it before, it's just going to be some quaint old story from Grandad or something."

At the Indian Head Resort in nearby Lincoln, marketing director Stew Weldon said he believes the memorial will be popular with tourists, both repeat visitors and newcomers. His business actually picked up a bit after the Old Man's fall as curious tourists arrived to check out the wreckage, he said, and Old Man of the Mountain merchandise in the gift shop continues to sell. A coffee mug for sale depicts a moose with a tear sliding down its face next to the caption: "I Miss the Old Man."

"The Old Man of the Mountain certainly has not been forgotten," Weldon said.