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Old Man rock face tumbles, endures

FRANCONIA, N.H., May 5 (UPI) -- Enduring for thousands of years, New Hampshire's famed Old Man of the Mountain granite rock profile has crumbled into history.

But the Great Stone Face that came to symbolize New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto will live on, Gov. Craig Benson has vowed.

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"Very few states have a symbol like that," the governor said after taking a weekend helicopter flight to view the rugged granite remains of the Old Man on Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch.

"The logo is everywhere," he said. "It identifies the state."

The Old Man's stern face, a 40-foot-high rock formation some 1,200 feet above Interstate 93, became New Hampshire's landmark after being discovered in 1805.

The image matching the rugged individualism of New Hampshire's people appears on the state's license plate and stationary, official state seals, highway signs and memorabilia.

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Benson announced this weekend that former Gov. Steve Merrill would head up a task force to determine how to memorialize the Old Man, including the possibility of restoring the natural granite profile. The makeup of the task force was to be formalized Monday.

The governor, however, acknowledged that reconstructing the Old Man would be difficult.

"Nature put the Old Man of the Mountain where it was and made what it was," Benson said. "We're good, but we're not as good as Mother Nature."

The massive rock structure, perhaps one of the most recognizable natural landmarks in the nation, had been shrouded in fog late last week.

However, early Saturday morning, park rangers Amy Cyrs and Cheryl Savoy peered up expecting to see the Old Man.

"It was so shocking," Cyrs said when they realized it was gone.

Two rock climbers, Matt Shannon, of Sanbornton; and Jacob Hadden, of Montpelier, Vt.; said they heard a "big roar and rumble" between midnight Friday and 2 a.m. Saturday. It was not until later that day that they learned what they heard probably was the collapse of the geological formation.

David Nielsen, whose family cared for the formation for 40 years, said learning of the collapse was "like a death in my family."

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Experts believe that despite the use of cables and epoxy to help keep the huge rocks in place, the stone formation finally gave in to generations of harsh weather.

The Old Man was by far the most popular tourist attraction in New Hampshire, drawing some 6 million visitors a year.

Benson has officially declared Saturday as "Family Remembrance Day," and invited families to visit Franconia Notch State Park that day to reflect on what the natural monument and state symbol has meant to them.

Thousands traveled to Franconia Notch Sunday to gaze upon what remained of the face, buy up Old Man post cards and other memorabilia at local gift shops, and leave flowers at a small shrine that began to grow below at a prime viewing spot on Profile Lake at the base of Cannon Mountain.

"You have seen the history of the world over many centuries," one note reads. "You have been a symbol of strength and perseverance to all who have seen you. Today you have fallen and its people are sad. May they be as strong as you have taught them."

"Old Man of the Mountain," read another sign. "We'll miss you."


(For more information, see Web site nhparks.state.nh.us/ParksPages/franconianotch/oldman.html.)

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