New Hampshire's True Face

The loss of a natural wonder, perhaps even more than of human antiquities, moves people profoundly.

So it was in New Hampshire - in all of New England, really - when the public learned Saturday morning that the Profile, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, had fallen from its perch on a cliff face 1,200 feet above Profile Lake in Franconia, N.H.

For some 200 years, the 40-foot-tall profile resembling a man's face has symbolized the Granite State and its people. It appears on the New Hampshire edition of the US quarter, on state road signs, and on license plates. The state's residents identified with its independence and toughness.

For several decades now, state workers knew that water and ice were acting to pry the Old Man loose. From the early 1960s, the late Niels Nielsen and his son, David, used cables and epoxy to preserve the stone face. The structure gave way Thursday or Friday behind a thick cover of cloud.

Earlier generations of New Hampshirites saw in the Old Man intimations of the divine. Daniel Webster, the 19th-century New Hampshire and Massachusetts statesman once said: "In the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men." Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, once referred to it in a poem as "a monument of Deity."

Present-day residents felt no less strongly about the Old Man. As word spread on Sunday, quiet crowds gathered at Profile Lake to gaze at what was left of their mountain. "It's like ... losing a member of the family," said one local resident.

It's been an unsettling year for New Hampshire. It just beat back a serious attempt by Michigan to usurp the role of the New Hampshire primary as the first in the nation. Many wonder if that primary's days, like those of the Profile, are numbered.

Yet its citizens' rock-solid attachment to the ideals of democracy - the New England town meeting, individual liberty, and their presidential primary - are the true face of New Hampshire. As long as they preserve those qualities, New Hampshirites will need no rock to symbolize who they are.

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