DURHAM, N.H. — The Old Man of the Mountain is gone for good, but 30 other fallen New Hampshire mountaintops have been restored — on a massive, historic relief map that captures northern New England’s geology and geography in vibrant colors that literally pop off the wall.
Geology professor Wally Bothner and a team of University of New Hampshire students spent the last year repairing and repainting the 12-by-16-foot wood and plaster map created in the late 1800s by Charles Hitchcock, one of New Hampshire’s first state geologists. The results of their painstaking work — which included replacing the top of Mount Washington and other peaks that had broken off over the years — are now on display at UNH’s James Hall, where the map soars over a staircase beneath a skylight specially designed to highlight its colors while protecting it from sun damage.
Bothner hadn’t done any restoration work beyond refinishing some antiques and fixing up an old house when he took on the project. But the timing was right: he had just retired, and the map was going to be taken down while James Hall underwent extensive renovations.
“It was going to be moved out, and there was some question as to what its future was going to be. So we just sat around the table and said, ‘Let’s get it fixed,'” Bothner said. “You just bite the bullet and say, I don’t know how to restore anything but I’m willing to learn.”
The map was removed in three sections and taken to a former food storage warehouse for the restoration. Bothner and his team cleaned it, scraped off loose paint, rebuilt the peaks and valleys with pine and putty, smoothed the rough edges and covered the surface with artists’ gesso so the new paint would bind properly. They then carefully masked each town boundary line and painted the map using a color scheme Bothner said both represents Hitchcock’s original and is compatible with modern maps.
Weighing nearly 1.5 tons, the restored map covers Vermont, New Hampshire and the western edge of Maine. It features bright swaths of nearly 40 different colors representing different types of rocks. Red and pink hues denoting granite are spread across New Hampshire, while much of Vermont is covered in blues and greens representing softer varieties. Geographic features include the boundaries and names of nearly 570 towns, the major roadways of the 1870s and New Hampshire’s largest lake, which was then spelled “Winnipiseogee” instead of the current “Winnipesaukee.”
Hitchcock, who had served as state geologist in Maine and Vermont before coming to New Hampshire, was paid $200 to produce the map, according to UNH. After a decade spent traveling the region, he worked on it between 1871 and 1890 at Dartmouth College, where he was a professor.
“What impresses me most is the accuracy. Mount Washington is where Mount Washington is. Tuckerman Ravine is cut in. … Monadnock and Kearsarge stand out in just the right place, in the shapes that you would expect,” Bothner said. “There’s some detail, certainly, and there are some tributaries that are missing, of course, but it was an absolutely phenomenal accomplishment to characterize the topography and the geology so well.”
The map was moved from Dartmouth to UNH in 1894 and was repainted in 1933. In 1966 it was moved to the basement of James Hall, where it fell into disrepair and was even marred by graffiti as students marked their hometowns.
In completing the restoration, Bothner’s team resisted the urge to go beyond the original and mark landmarks such as the Old Man of the Mountain, the profile-shaped rock formation that tumbled from Franconia Notch in 2003, or the Statehouse, or UNH.
“After a while it would be just a pincushion,” he said. “And a lot of those things aren’t Hitchcock. We really want to represent what he saw.”
David Wunsch, the current state geologist, said Bothner and his team did an outstanding job preserving an amazing piece of work.
“When you consider that Hitchcock toured the state and did the entire map of the state of New Hampshire … back in the horse and wagon day, to have that detail and to find out now when we’ve got much better technology that he was pretty close in his determinations is really an amazing feat,” he said.
In addition to being useful to UNH students, Wunsch said he hopes the public will view the map and think about how different types of rocks affect the shape of the land.
“It gives people a feel for how the landscape looks and how it relates to geology,” he said. “When you drive your same route to work or whatever, you might never look at it quite the same because you realize, wow, that hill right there is a giant intrusion of granite.”