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Primary Source Set: Old Man of the Mountain

The Old Man of the Mountain 


Though its exact age at the time of its fall from the side of Cannon Mountain is debatable, we know the remarkable rock formation known as the Old Man of the Mountain looked out over Franconia Notch for thousands, if not millions, of years. It inspired writers, artists, musicians, and politicians, not to mention the tens of thousands of visitors and hikers who explored the Notch every year for the purpose of seeing it themselves. Officially named a state emblem in 1945, the rugged “face” of the Old Man was widely embraced as a miraculous symbol of the character of the state of New Hampshire.

Geologists have determined that what viewers perceived as the profile view of the forehead, nose, mouth, and chin of a man’s face jutting out from the side of Cannon Mountain were actually five serendipitously placed layers of granite. Anecdotes about the first sighting of the Old Man abound, but the granite profile was first seen—other than presumably by Native Americans—around 1805 when it was first noticed by members of a surveying party working and camping in Franconia Notch near Ferrin’s Pond (later renamed Profile Lake). Just one or two members of the party happened to be in just the right spot, looking in just the right direction to see the remarkable face.


The first appearance of the Old Man in print did not appear until 1828, when an issue of the American Journal of Science & Arts published a sketch and description of the natural wonder. Around the same time, New Hampshire experienced a boom in tourism as travelers eager to explore the White Mountains prompted expansion of railroads and the construction of inns and hotels. The “profile” on Cannon Mountain, which was then called Profile Mountain, was one of the White Mountains’ most popular attractions and also inspired the naming of the nearby lake, one of the region’s grandest hotels, and even a branch of the railroad.  

While people enjoyed viewing the Old Man of the Mountain from the ground below, its exact location was not pinpointed until 1872 when members of the Appalachian Mountain Club hiked to its ledges. The excitement about the discovery was tempered by the news that the forehead ledge seemed to be separating from the mountain. In 1916, Edward Geddes, a stone mason from Massachusetts, installed the first set of turnbuckles that secured the forehead ledge to the cliff. 

Over the next 87 years, the Old Man of the Mountain would require many more repairs. In 1987 Niels Nielsen, who had been overseeing and making annual repairs since the 1960s, was named the official caretaker of the Old Man of the Mountain. Nielsen and his family, particularly his son David who succeeded him as official caretaker in 1992, and daughter-in-law Deborah, cared for the Old Man of the Mountain until its ledges collapsed sometime in the early morning hours of May 3, 2003. Today, visitors to Franconia Notch can still get a glimpse of the Old Man by using special steel “profilers” set up at the viewing site. 

This primary source set guide can be used in several ways to explore the story and significance of the Old Man of the Mountain. Following the one-page introduction to the Old Man of the Mountain for students, you will find the titles and background information for each source in the set. It is not necessary to use all sources in a set to create a meaningful inquiry.  

Additional Resources 

  • Gfroerer, John, dir. Family Profile: Taking Care of the Old Man. Concord: Accompany, 1996. DVD, 25 min. 
  • Hancock, Frances Ann Johnson. Saving the Great Stone Face: The Chronicle of the Old Man of the Mountain. Edited by Ruth Ayres-Givens. Canaan: Phoenix Publishing, 1984.  
  • Heald, Bruce D. 101 Glimpses of the Old Man of the Mountain. Charleston: The History Press, 2009. 
  • Hutchinson, Robert. The Old Man of the Mountain. San Francisco: Browntrout Publishers, 2003. 
  • Melman, Peter. Uniquely New Hampshire. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2004. 
  • Timeline of New Hampshire History, New Hampshire Historical Society, Found at nhhistory.org/Timeline

Focus Questions

In addition to our general suggestions for using primary source sets, consider giving students one of the following prompts for an inquiry using this primary source set about the Old Man of the Mountain.
  • 1
    Why do items like the stamp, coin, license plate, and milk bottle feature the Old Man of the Mountain? Why is it still a symbol for our state even though it no longer exists?
  • 2
    The Old Man of the Mountain was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the White Mountains. How has tourism to New Hampshire changed since the Old Man became a favorite site in the mid-1800s?

Photographs in this Primary Source Set:

Steam Engine at the Profile House
Old Man of the Mountain Falls
Old Man of the Mountain carte de visite
View of Old Man with Profile Post

Objects in this Primary Source Set:

Profile House Pitcher
New Hampshire State Quarter
Old Man of the Mountain Stamp
Milk Bottle
License Plate
Painting of Old Man of the Mountain

Documents in this Primary Source Set:

Engraving of Profile Mountain/Old Man of the Mountain
Resolution