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The Story Of The Old Man Of The Mountain Is What Many Have Not Known Outside Or Near New England

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Mark Corliss, of Keene, New Hampshire, takes a photograph of the Old Man of the Mountain on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire's Franconia Notch State Park on Nov. 23, 1977. ED JENNER/ACCUWEATHER

For generations, the visage of a stony-faced man watched over New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch State Park from the cliff side. 

The human profile carved by Mother Nature into the unique rock formation stood as a patient sentinel at Cannon Cliff, becoming an icon for the region, inspiring artists and writers over the years and even playing a significant part in a long-passed-down love story.

But on May 3, 2003, the longtime resident of New Hampshire’s Cannon Cliff lost its hold on the mountainside. 

The turnbuckles and rods that had been installed years earlier to fight erosion couldn’t keep the 40-foot-tall icon from collapsing, and the rocks plummeted some 1,200 feet into the valley below.

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“When he was up there, he represented a reliantly steady, reassuring presence in a world that was otherwise changing really rapidly,” Brian Fowler, a geologist and president of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, told The Associated Press.

Mark Corliss, of Keene, New Hampshire, takes a photograph of the Old Man of the Mountain on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch State Park on Nov. 23, 1977. ED JENNER/ACCUWEATHER

The Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund held a 20th Anniversary Show on Wednesday, sharing poetry, memories, photos and research on the formation to honor its memory and role in local culture.

Dartmouth College graduate student Matthew Maclay, who led a research project to better understand the forces behind bedrock weathering and rockfall at Cannon Cliff, participated in the show, where he shared some of the research on erosion rates following the rock structure’s collapse.

“We know the climate in New England is warming, just like it is in many other places, and we want to see if we can understand and predict how bedrock weathering rates will respond to that going forward,” Maclay said.

The missing portion of the natural formation, Old Man of the Mountain, is pictured on the morning it was discovered missing in Fraconia, New Hampshire, May 3, 2003. New Hampshire’s fallen Old Man of the Mountain would be honored with an annual proclamation under a bill passed by the House on March 22, 2023. JIM COLE/ACCUWEATHER

In his research project, he estimated 750 cubic meters of rock fell from Cannon Mountain on that fateful day, which he had compared to more volume than five school buses.

He also created an online interactive 3D model of the Old Man using original film negatives that documented the formation and area before the collapse as well as aerial surveys performed by Dartmouth collaborators with drones.

“The Old Man of the Mountain may have weighed nearly 2,000 tons when it collapsed,” Maclay told AP. “While 3-inch turnbuckles had been bolted into the Old Man to try and prevent it from falling, the actual strength of the granite was degraded over centuries, and that’s probably why it collapsed.”

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The age of the formation is a topic of debate; however, geologists believe it formed sometime after the end of the Ice Age — possibly as long as 12,000 years ago.

New Hampshire historical records mention the profile as early as 1805, but one love story from the Abenaki, an Indigenous people from the northeastern U.S. and Canada, also includes the stoic face.

The story begins with a man known as Nis Kizos, or Two Moons, who was born during an eclipse. 

As he developed into a capable leader and prover, he proved himself ready to attend the Kchi Mahadin, or the Great Gathering, to trade, meet with healers, reaffirm treaties and meet people from other nations. It was here where he met Tarlo, a Haudenosaunee woman.

“Their love was undeniable,” according to the retelling of this tale by the Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective, which consists of local tribal leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff and faculty of the University of New Hampshire, local community activists and other community members.

An image of the Old Man of the Mountain. SEPIA TIMES/ACCUWEATHER

Nis Kizos and Tarlo lived together happily until the latter had to return to her village to help those who had become sick, and Nis Kizos promised to stay at the family’s hunting camp on the mountain, so she could find her way home.

First, days passed. Then autumn came to an end. When neither returned, someone was sent to look for them. Only Nis Kizos was found, still lighting a fire by night to guide Tarlo back to him, and he refused to leave the mountain until she returned.

Winter passed, and the sickness spread. Word reached the Elders of Nis Kizos’s village that Tarlo and her family had passed, and they once again sent someone to retrieve Nis Kizos. This time, however, they found the fire was no longer lit at the top of the mountain.

As they left the mountain, they looked up to say a prayer for the couple when they saw it — Nis Kizos’s face staring back at them as a part of the mountain. “Stone Face,” the visage is called by the Abenaki.

When Stone Face collapsed, it was a bittersweet moment, as some interpreted it as Nis Kizos finally reuniting with the love of his life, bringing his hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of waiting to an end.

Produced in association with AccuWeather

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