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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stone Mountain, Georgia

Stone Mountain, Georgia, notoriously hard to photograph well.                            
It was with some misgivings that I decided to visit Stone Mountain Park, located a short distance slightly northeast of Atlanta. I was well aware of the racist history associated with the mountain, the high relief sculptural conception, and the those who created it. I guess first and foremost I recognized it as an outstanding work of art, an effort on the scale of Mount Rushmore (which we visited last spring), though by no means its equal. The name of monumental sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, is associated with both works though nothing of Borglum's Stone Mountain carving still exists. He quit (or was fired, depending upon who you ask) in 1925. In a dispute with the United Daughters of the Confederacy who had hired him. He not only quit the project, but destroyed much which he'd completed and all his working drawings. He went on to Mt. Rushmore and the rest of that episode is well-known history. He was replaced by Augustus Lukeman who found himself starting from scratch with a greatly scaled down version of Borglum's grandiose "army" of Confederate soldiers and their leaders (Lee, Jackson, and Confederate President, Jefferson Davis). Only the leaders remained. Even at that, his work came to an end in 1928 when everyone, North and South, suddenly ran out of money for such sculptural extravaganzas.
A postcard approximation of Gutzon Borglum's proposed eight-man cavalry brigade.
Stone Mountain, 1928-58.
The project would lie idle for some thirty years, half finished, more of an eyesore than a memorial. Then in 1958, Georgia Governor Walker Griffin persuaded the legislature to purchase the mountain for $1,125,000. It was another five years--1963, the centennial of the Civil War--before work was to commence again, this time under the direction of sculptor Walker Kirkland Hancock and his chief stonecutter, Roy Faulkner. They completed their work some nine years later in 1972. The fact that it was completed at all, and in only nine years is as much a tribute to the modern invention of the thermo-jet torch as those newly ordained to complete the project. Rather than hammers and chisels or dynamite, this new sculpting tool literally blasts away with incredible speed and precision the immense quantities of stone necessary in creating a high-relief image some twelve feet in depth at its deepest point (to the right of Robert E. Lee's elbow).

"Hello there, General." The scale is immense.
The top of Stone Mountain.
Guides and others discoursing on the Stone Mountain carvings are not hesitant in pointing out that the carved image, 90 ft. x 190 ft. and recessed into the mountain some 42 feet (largely the result of three separate sculptors starting from scratch three separate times), is bigger than Mt. Rushmore (though only slightly). Be that as it may, Stone Mountain does not compare favorably with Mt. Rushmore. The latter is carved very nearly "in the round," especially the head of Washington. Lee and his cohorts are rendered merely in high relief. Beyond that, Borglum's figures thoroughly dominate their mountain. Those of, Lukeman, Hancock, do not. Despite their monumental size, Stone Mountain itself is, well...mountainous in scale. Even today, as they have for nearly two-hundred years, tourists flock to Stone mountain as much to see the mountain itself, riding to its top in a Swiss cable car, or climbing a sometimes steeply sloping trail, as to see the three Confederate war heroes.

The Stone Mountain Skyride--don't look down.
Hanging out with the stars--from Lee's collar.
Stone Mountain Park has an identity crisis. It doesn't know whether to be a Confederate war memorial or an amusement park tourist attraction. When we were there the week before Memorial Day, it was passing quite impressively as the former. Only its Skyride to the top and its two major museums were open. The Skyride is thrilling, well worth the thirteen-dollar ticket to the top. The top is otherworldly, a somewhat lunar, white granite landscape with a view. On a clear day you can see Atlanta. The museums are a little less exciting. One is an excellent natural history museum aimed at educating guests regarding the formation of Stone Mountain hundreds of millions of years ago (who cares how many, the exact figure probably being inaccurate anyway). The Stone Mountain Memorial Hall details the human history surrounding the park from Native Americans to modern-day tourism. There's also a healthy dose of Georgia Civil War history in the form of an excellent film, The War for Georgia. Though accurate in detail, its tone leaves little doubt as to its southern bias. Victories are exalted, defeats are bemoaned. The suffering and devastation inflicted upon the state by Sherman and his armies dutifully emphasized. Words such as "unfortunately," "sadly," and "reluctantly," are heard often.

Stone Mountainland--fast food, parking lots, thrill rides, entertainment, souvenirs,
light shows, and did I mention parking lots? Lots and lots of parking lots.
On the brighter side, though owned by the state of Georgia, most of the park's family attractions are run by the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation, better known for their nationwide tourism management and entertainment endeavors than running war memorials. There's a reconstructed, post civil war town featuring mostly souvenir shops, street entertainers, and supposedly authentic fast food from the era (above). However the star of the show is the nightly laser-fireworks light display emblazoned across the sculpted face of the mountain. The image is inert. The pyrotechnics, music, lights, and lasers are not. They steal the show. Generals Lee, Jackson, and President Davis, not to mention Walt Disney, would be aghast.

The Stone Mountain laser light show. Carving? What carving?
For a more in-depth look, click on the video below:


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