If you are from the Northeast, you know I’m not talking about a crusty old prospector who fished the clear rivers and survived on hardtack and moonshine in his mountain shack. No—the Old Man of the Mountain was a series of five granite cliff ledges on Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When viewed from the north, the ledges appeared to be the jagged profile of a face.
The Old Man of the Mountain—or the Great Stone Face, as the image was sometimes called—was located near a scenic mountain pass called Franconia Notch. Our family camped there when the children were young; we hiked The Forge, visited The Basin, a 30-foot pothole hewn in the rock by the cascading Pemigewasset River. We stopped the car along the Franconia Notch Parkway and marveled at the Old Man, stolid and silent, guarding the valley below.
The Old Man of the Mountain, carved by glaciers and jutting out from the cliff 1,200 feet above Profile Lake, was first discovered by a team of surveyers in 1805. It became famous because statesman Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire native, wrote about it:
“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.”
In 1850 the Old Man was commemorated in literature once again, when Nathaniel Hawthorne used the craggy portrait as inspiration for his short story “The Great Stone Face,” in which he described the formation as
“a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness.”
The Great Stone Face was named New Hampshire’s state emblem in 1945. The image was put on the state’s license plate, state route signs, and the back of New Hampshire’s Statehood Quarter, which is the only U.S. coin with a profile on both sides. The U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp with the Old Man of the Mountain in 1955.