A postcard from the early 1900s showing the Old Man of the Falls in Lewiston, as well as what was considered the profile of a Native American, far left. Private collection

Just as children look up at puffy clouds floating in the blue sky and see in them every possible permutation of creature, some people have a proclivity for staring at big rock formations and discerning within them the profiles of men.

Over in New Hampshire, for instance, folks long ago spotted the profile of what became known as “The Old Man of the Mountain” within the outlines of a granite ledge in Franconia. Residents there adored the 40-foot-high structure so much they featured it on license plates and even chose the scene for the obverse of a state-themed quarter – just before the entire rocky edifice collapsed in a heap in 2003.

Nothing, after all, lasts forever.

The Twin Cities are all too familiar with that lesson.

A rocky formation in the middle of what was then called the Lewiston Falls came to public prominence in times past as the profile of a distinguished fellow referred to as the Old Man of the Falls who “reigned in royal fashion,” as the Lewiston Evening Journal wrote in 1935.

“Every spring, before the big dams held back most of the waters as they do now, boiling floods gushed downstream and sprinkled the Old Man of the Falls in annual baptisms,” the paper said. “Nobody here ever expected to lose his majesty. Mayors might come and go, but his reign seemed destined to go on forever. He was King of the Androscoggin for centuries.”


The edifice appeared “immoveable as the mountains and to all appearances eternal,” the paper said, but it nonetheless vanished nearly a century ago.

The rock profile might still be there today except that a construction crew working on a water line stuffed the formation with dynamite and, well, let’s just say that their work didn’t help the Old Man’s chances for immortality.

We shouldn’t rush the story, though.


Painter D.D. Coombs set out one day in the 1880s to create a picture of the falls from the Auburn side, capturing the view at West Pitch, as it was commonly called at the time.

“It was one spring,” Coombs told the Lewiston Evening Journal, “and I was getting thirsty to get out and catch a bit of nature.”


He said he “went down there by Penley’s Spring and adjusted my easel, got my stool in place, and finally when all ready, looked up at the great, black rocks of the falls.”

“Well, there was that face staring right up into the sky,” Coombs said.

Artist D.D. Coombs Lewiston Daily Sun

Of all the spots where Coombs could have set up, he said, he’d managed to stumble into the one that showed the Old Man’s profile “to the best advantage.”

In fact, he said, he grew “afraid that its prominence would spoil my picture” so “I softened it a little” in rendering the scene on canvas.

Displayed in Lewiston, his painting drew complaints that “there was no such thing to be seen at the falls,” the paper said.

A frustrated Coombs went back and painted the Old Man “as big as it was” in real life.


“I gave it its full value,” Coombs said, and promptly got even more criticism.

To prove his assertion, he went back once again to West Pitch, got a photograph from the same spot and began showing the photograph alongside the painting.

“That settled it,” Coombs said, “and here was no chance to deny but that there was a profile rock there.”

The Journal agreed.

On May 19, 1886, it wrote that Coombs “has set the seal of genuineness on his painting of the ‘Old Man of the Waters,’ in Profile Rock, West Pitch, by pointing the photographer’s camera at him and catching his picture.

“The waters have receded some, and a rock has come into view that partially impairs the swelling outlines of the chest and the curve of the neck, but the face is there just the same, with the expression so real that the photograph might be that of the painting instead of the rock.”


Even The New York Times thought Coombs’ revelation was newsworthy enough to republish part of the Journal’s story.

The Journal’s 1898 account of “the discovery of the Old Man of the Falls,” said that Coombs, by then an artist employed by the newspaper and “first of all the lovers of nature,” was the one who “brought this phenomenal freak to the attention of the public.”


Coombs, though, quickly handed credit for the discovery of the Old Man of the Falls to a friend.

Coombs wrote in 1898 that years before, he had been looking at the river when Richard Dresser, a municipal judge in Auburn from 1875 to 1892, “came along and asked me if I ever saw the profile on the falls.”

The artist told the judge he’d sketched all around the falls but had never noticed a profile among the rocks.


Dresser responded by offering “to introduce me to His Highness,” Coombs said, “and took me to a point of view that showed quite a striking resemblance to the human face on the falls, but it made so slight an impression on me that it was soon forgotten.”

Only later, when he stood beneath his “white umbrella spread” with his easel did it truly strike him that the rock looked like an old man “gazing up at the sky” with a dignified expression.

His painting stirred so much notice of the Old Man of the Falls that it led many others to try to capture the view on film or canvas. One of them, Harry L. Plummer, came up with an iconic shot where, as the Journal once put, the Old Man is “clearly seen sticking his nose loftily in the air.”

Postcards of the scene became ubiquitous.

Some people eyeing the scene discerned, with even less cause, the profile of a Native American on a big rock closer to the shore on the Auburn side.

Susie C. Young wrote a poem, “The Falls, Loohiston,” that included the observation that “two stony faces” faced “our flourishing city” at the falls “unhewn from the rock and unchiseled.”


The Old Man of the Falls is featured in this postcard from about 1900, with what some said was the profile of a Native American appearing in the rocks at the top of the falls far left. Private collection


In the middle of August in 1899, the Journal published a story headlined “Over on West Pitch: Queer Sights Witnessed Along the Route of the New Water Works Ditch.”

Its writer, unfortunately unnamed but quite possibly journalist and later-novelist Holman Day, dug right in: “Six or seven steam drills are busily at work chewing holes into the cranium of the Old Man of the Falls in Lewiston.”

With a steam boiler on both shores and 20 men with drills, the crews moved carefully.

“The work is of necessity slow,” the story said, “for mankind does not disturb the solid foundations of the earth in a second that it took the Creator ages to build up.”

A crew working with a steam drill in Vermont about 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“When a discharge is let off, and the dynamite tears out a piece as large as a hogshead, the workmen congratulated themselves, and set to work again to make more trouble for the Old Man,” the story said.


The project aimed to put a water line beneath the falls from shore to shore.

“Old rocks here which have stood here defying the river since time first began have at last met their match,” the story said.

When the dynamite exploded, “the whole top of his head” flew away, the paper said in a later version.

When the crew finished the water line project, the somewhat diminished Old Man remained recognizable somehow, despite having bits of his head blown to pieces.

But something had changed that wouldn’t be apparent immediately.



By 1910, the Journal would run a long story that asked, in its first sentence, “Is the Old Man of our Lewiston Falls receding, shriveling up and destined to soon disappear?”

To ask the question is, naturally, to answer it.

A 1920 illustration from the Lewiston Evening Journal for a story about a cold snap.

L.C. Bateman, a florid editor of the Lewiston Journal Magazine in those days, said that “empires and dynasties may have arisen, whirled upon their axles and disappeared beneath the horizon of time” in the “trackless eons” that the Old Man stood guard over the river.

But, he said, close observers of the falls believed the Old Man had nonetheless dwindled in recent years, shrinking more than 12 feet in just six or eight years as the ledge at the base of the falls retracted.

Bateman compared the older photographs of the profile rock with new ones to determine the Old Man’s features were fading. “The camera tells the story!” he added.

He also quoted John Adams Knight and his sister Ruth Elden Knight who lived nearby and kept a close eye on the river for six decades.


“To them, every rock is familiar and also endeared by a thousand tender ties,” Bateman wrote. The siblings both saw the Old Man quickly slipping away.

“Geology tells us that millions of years are required to change the face of nature even a few feet where solid ledge is involved,” John Adams Knight said, yet “this change in the falls has all come about in a few years.”

He said he thought the water mains were responsible.

To put them in, Knight said, crews blasted out a channel just above the falls.

“To do this, dynamite was used and some of the explosions shook this house like a leaf,” he said. “I have an idea that seams were opened in many places beneath the falls and these have let water in” that caused “all this mischief.”

Knight said water seeped into the new cracks, freezing and melting as the seasons changed, destroying the formations that had long stood against the current. Bateman said that Knight’s sister endorsed the notion as well.


Bateman walked out to the spot to see for himself and found little to comment on except the sad reality that so much garbage had piled up everywhere that rats were having a field day at the feet of the Old Man.

Even so, Bateman said, the confusion of shattered stone and immense rocks ought to be a major tourism attraction.

“What a magnificent spot this would be for a park system for Auburn!” he said. It could, he said, become a national attraction instead of a place to dump municipal trash.


In 1935, in a story that dismissed the Old Man as dead and gone, the Journal announced that it had spotted in the refashioned rocks a new profile: “a huge head topped with a flowing mane” that it decided to call the Queen of the Androscoggin.

She had, the paper said, “been hiding all these centuries only to appear after the fatality to her lord.”


The Lewiston Evening Journal pictured the Queen of the Androscoggin in its pages in 1935.

The Journal said the new queen would rule over the waters in his place, at least to the degree the dam operators allowed.

It even held a contest for readers to write a story about the queen and the river.

Reader Florence E. Mixer won the competition. Her fictional entry began “Centuries ago the Great Spirit looked at the Androscoggin River, with its wooded banks, and falls waiting to furnish power for future cities, and he saw that it was good.”

Incredibly, the tale went downhill from there.

If anybody ever noticed the woman’s profile in the rocks again, neither the Journal nor the Lewiston Daily Sun thought it worthwhile to mention it.



Perhaps the last time anyone took notice of the Old Man of the Falls came in 1938 when the Journal ran a short story about somebody painting “Bunker for Sheriff” in big white letters on the still somewhat identifiable rock, a peculiar political tactic touting Irving Bunker, an independent candidate from Auburn.

Nowadays, both Bunker and the once-famous rock are long gone and mostly forgotten.

But perhaps some eagle-eyed resident with a good imagination looking at the falls today may yet see something there in those still-glorious rocks.

A good tourism promoter might notice, for instance, that if you squint just right, when the light falls perfectly, you can almost see, in the shape of the rocks, Sonny Liston lying prone there, preserving forever a famous moment in Lewiston’s past.

Or maybe that’s just a honeybee or a horse or the Minnow from “Gilligan’s Island.”

The only thing that’s certain is that a lot of water and a lot of rocks offer the chance to spot pretty much anything you want to see in them.

The Old Man may be gone. But, then again, maybe not.

Perhaps it’s only that our imaginations are lacking.

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