ERIK S. LESSER/EPA/REX/ShutterstockEven if Mount Rushmore, the South Dakota mountain with the massive granite sculpture of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, is on your bucket list, you would be forgiven for not knowing about Georgia’s Stone Mountain, located 10 miles from downtown Atlanta. If it does happen to sound kind of familiar, it could be because it’s been in the news lately—not because of the mountain, itself, but because of what the carving depicts.
The carving at Stone Mountain is the Confederate Memorial Carving. It depicts three Confederate figures: President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. All three were considered heroes of the Confederate side of the Civil War, a period of American history about which many Americans still feel passionately.
The current controversy
Some believe that Confederate monuments are important and valuable to our nation’s history, while some believe that Confederate monuments perpetuate racism (in part, because the Confederacy fought to maintain slavery). Several recent events have drawn attention to the issue, according to Smithsonian Magazine. These events include the uprooting of a General Lee statue in Maryland, the removal of four Confederate statues in Louisiana, and the violence in Virginia surrounding a White nationalist rally.
No matter where you might stand on the controversy, Stone Mountain is, nevertheless, remarkable, both as a natural wonder and for its contribution to the world of art.
Stone Mountain as a natural wonder
From the point of view of nature, Stone Mountain, itself, is wondrous, boasting the following statistics:
1. It’s the world’s largest piece of exposed granite.
2. It’s counted as one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders.
3. It’s an 825-foot tall dome-shaped, isolated mountain (the scientific term is “monadnock“) made of granite.
4. It rises 1,683 feet above sea level.
5. It covers 583 acres.
6. It has a base circumference of 3.8 miles.
7. It covers 583 acres.
8. It was created 300 million years ago by a pocket of magma trapped underground.
9. It rose to the earth’s surface 15 million years ago as a result of uplift and erosion.
10. From the top of the mountain, on a clear, winter day, you can see more than 45 miles.
Stone Mountain’s history
11. As early as 4000 B.C., Paleo-Indians were drawn to the imposing mountain, as evidenced by soapstone bowls and other artifacts recovered by archaeologists. Researchers have also found stone walls erected at the top, which they estimate date back to somewhere between 100 BC and 500 AD.
12. Before 1800, Native Americans used Stone Mountain as a meeting and ceremonial place.
13. In 1869, Stone Mountain Granite and Railway Co. began a systematic effort to mine the mountain for granite. That work was taken over by the Venable family in 1882, who had become the owners of Stone Mountain.
14. In 1915, the then-owners of Stone Mountain—the Venable family, and specifically, patriarch Sam Venable—hosted an historic meeting of the Ku Klux Klan at the top of the mountain, which marked the beginning of a Klan resurgence. It was the first of many Klan meetings hosted by the Venable family at the top of Stone mountain. The association between the Klan and the mountain became well-known (the Klan’s meeting place was known for decades as “the Klan Shack in Stone Mountain Village“) and is often cited in the current debate.
15. The Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain was conceived of in 1912 as a pet project of Mrs. C. Helen Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Mrs. Plane spent the next four years lobbying the Venables to allow the carving to happen. Finally, in 1916 Mrs. Plane convinced the Venables to deed the north face to the UDC on the condition that the UDC would complete a sizable Civil War monument within the next 12 years.
16. The UDC hired the artist, Gutzon Borglum, to design and sculpt the monument. Borglum, the son of Mormons from Idaho came up with the idea of memorializing Davis, Lee, and Jackson. He also considered, at the behest of Mrs. Plane, including the Klu Klux Klan in the design, but ultimately decided against it. In 1925, after only Lee’s head had been completed, Borglum was fired from the project, and Borglum’s work was sandblasted. A second sculptor, Henry Augustus Lukeman, who was of Jewish descent, was brought in but was forced to abandon the project in 1928, when the Venables declined to renew their deed.
17. After Borglum was fired from Stone Mountain, he went on to design and sculpt Mount Rushmore. (Borglum is just one example of why getting fired can be the best thing to ever happen to your career.)
18. After 1928 and until 1964, Stone Mountain remained nothing more than a granite mountain bearing some preliminary carvings. Then a new project-head was appointed by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which had formed as a Georgia state authority 10 years earlier and is known by some historians for advocating white supremacy. Whatever the motivations of the Association were, the resulting carving, which was completed in 1972, was a formidable work of human effort and artistic execution.
19. The entire carved surface measures three-acres, which makes it not only larger than Mount Rushmore, but also larger than a football field. It is recessed 42 feet into the mountain
20. Robert E. Lee is as tall as a nine-story building.
21. Jefferson Davis’ thumb is the size of a sofa.
22. Davis, Lee, and Jackson are all depicted on horseback. Their actual horses were depicted. The names of those horses were Blackjack, Traveler, and Little Sorrel, respectively.
23. Stone Mountain is a major tourist attraction that draws approximately 4 million visitors a year. (If you’re looking for free tourist attractions, here are the best in every state.)
24. There’s an entire theme park at the base of the mountain, Stone Mountain Park, that offers rides, games, food, and other activities. From the Stone Mountain Park, visitors can take the Sky Ride to the summit, take a tour of the base of Stone Mountain via the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, go for a Mississippi style paddle boat ride on Stone Mountain Lake, or visit the historic Antebellum Plantation and Farmyard, comprised of original plantation buildings dating back to the late 1700s. The existence of the plantation building is also cited in the current controversy because of the connection between plantations and slavery.
25. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr called it out in his famed 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, saying, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” Here are eight of our favorite inspirational MLK Jr. quotes.
26. Today, Stone Mountain’s Laser Light Show features an image of King. The early days of the laser light show featured images of the Confederate generals riding off into the darkness to the tune of Elvis Presley’s Dixie.
27. Stone Mountain’s Songbird Habitat was the site for the archery and cycling competition for the 1996 Olympics. The Summit Skyride was used to carry the Olympic Torch to the summit in 1996. (Do you know what the Olympic Rings stand for?)
28. Angel Wallenda walked a tightrope in front of the carving in 1991. Wallenda, who lost a leg to cancer but trained herself to walk the wire with the help of a prosthetic leg, eventually died of the disease on May 3, 1996, at age 28.
Next, read on to learn surprising facts about Washington, D.C.