People & Events: The Carving of Stone Mountain
Before Mount Rushmore, there was Stone Mountain.
Stone Mountain, the largest exposed granite face in the world, is fifteen miles east of Atlanta, Georgia. In 1915, Helen Plane of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.) asked Gutzon Borglum to sculpt a likeness of General Robert E. Lee on the mountain. Borglum refused, as such a project would be ridiculously out of scale. Instead, he suggested a larger sculpture that would include Lee with a column of Confederate soldiers. Mrs. Plane was convinced, as was Samuel Venable, who owned the mountain.
In November of the same year, on top of Stone Mountain, William J. Simmons held a ceremony to commemorate the rebirth of a Confederate veterans association, using the same name chosen by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest following the American Civil War: the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). No longer strictly a veteran's group, the KKK counted Venable and Borglum among its followers.
Borglum's vision of the Stone Mountain sculpture exceeded the financial capabilities of the U.D.C., so the sculptor went about raising money through the Stone Mountain Association, which controlled the funds. Among his financing plans was the minting of a half-dollar coin (which he would design) that would be sold to the Association at face value and which they in turn would sell for a dollar apiece. The Stone Mountain Memorial Coinage Act was sponsored by Senators Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Reed Smoot of Utah, and endorsed by President Calvin Coolidge, and was to mint five million coins.
Work began on the mountain in 1923. Four intrepid African American laborers installed the steel beams on the face of the mountain that would support the work platforms for the remainder of the project. After a year of blasting with dynamite and carving with jackhammers, on January 19, 1924 (the birthday of General Lee), thousands of spectators were on hand for the unveiling of the Lee sculpture.
The next step was to carve the likeness of General "Stonewall" Jackson on the mountain, but relationships between Borglum and his patrons soured. Accusations of financial misconduct escalated into personal conflicts that led Borglum to destroy his working models and leave Georgia. By his own account, Borglum's model was flawed and, if completed, would have only served to destroy the memorial he loved dearly. The Stone Mountain Association and the U.D.C. charged Borglum with malicious mischief and filed a $50,000 civil suit against him. Borglum fled Georgia to avoid being arrested.
By this time, Borglum had already attracted the interest of South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, and his break with Stone Mountain allowed him to pursue a new project in the Black Hills of South Dakota with renewed energy.
Augustus Lukeman succeeded Borglum on the Stone Mountain project and put his carving just below where Borglum had begun his. Later, Borglum's work was blasted off. The coins he designed did not sell well, and didn't even cover the cost of Lukeman's work. Lukeman had completed two human heads and one horse's head when the original contract expired in 1928. He was not granted an extension and the land reverted back to the Venable family from the U.D.C.
In 1958 the State of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain. The area around the monument was landscaped for recreation and Walker Kirtland Hancock was retained in 1963 to oversee completion of the artwork. The carving was completed by 1972. Recognizing the need for sustaining tourist dollars, the park land now included golf courses, a railroad, an artificial lake with a Mississippi river boat, a museum of automobiles, and exhibits of Southern history. In the 1980s, a former Six Flags manager was brought in to oversee the park and developed it into a profitable tourist and conference center focusing on Southern and Confederate culture, with the carving receding into the background. For the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Stone Mountain Park hosted cycling, tennis and archery events.
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