Georgia: Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain is the largest piece of exposed granite in North America and the anchor for an extensive park complex. The mountain also contains the largest work of sculpture in the world–a carving of three Confederate figures.

Site Office

Stone Mountain Park Marketing Department

P.O. Box 778

Stone Mountain, GA 30086

ph.: (770) 498-5690

Web site:

Stone Mountain is worthy of note for its geological significance alone; rising to 1,683 feet at its highest point, it dominates the terrain and can be seen from thirty miles away. Roughly four miles in circumference, it covers an area of over five hundred acres. It is the largest piece of exposed granite in North America, and for years was the site of extensive quarries; Stone Mountain granite is now found in important buildings throughout the world. However, it is now most well known for the large carving of three Confederate figures on its north face, a carving that constitutes the largest single sculpture in the world.

Earliest Known History

It is unclear when exactly Stone Mountain was formed, but geologists fix the date at approximately 200 million years ago, when underground molten stone bubbled up in a dome shape, forming layers of rock which later cooled very slowly to become dense, uniform crystals of granite. At the same time, the top of the structure began a continuing process of erosion, giving it a distinctive rounded or “bald” shape.

The earliest Europeans to see the mountain appear to have been Spanish soldiers, though early records are not absolutely definitive. When trappers, traders, and settlers inquired about the mountain, the local Native Americans informed them that they knew nothing of its origin, as it had been there before their own ancestors arrived.

Up until the early twentieth century, the remnants of a stone wall, several feet high, could still be seen on Stone Mountain’s summit. A favorite pastime of early visitors was tossing the constituent rocks down the side of the mountain. While early visitors often mistakenly believed that this enclosure indicated an attempt to fortify by the early Spanish conquistadors, this was clearly not true, as the wall was apparently not high enough, and the lack of food and water at the site would make it indefensible in a protracted siege. Modern anthropologists believe that the wall, which is similar to many others found at ceremonial sites throughout the South, was used for religious ritual purposes by early Native Americans.

In fact, Stone Mountain is located within a neutral zone between early Native American nations within Georgia, and heads a crossroad of major trading routes of the Cherokee and Muskogee (commonly called Creek) nations. This location was important in one of the earliest known records of activity at the site–a meeting between Colonel Marinus Willett (an emissary of President Washington), Alexander McGillivray, and other representatives of the Muskogees–to begin a trip to New York for treaty talks.

Through various treaties and agreements, the land on which Stone Mountain sits was finally ceded to the state of Georgia in 1821 in a parcel that included the land on which Atlanta now sits. This opened the way to European settlement of the entire Stone Mountain area, and the Native Americans who had apparently once worshipped on the top of Stone Mountain were eventually removed by force from almost all of Georgia.

Early Settlements

Once the area near Stone Mountain–which was then often called Stoney Mountain or Rock Mountain–was opened to European settlement, a village quickly grew up at the base of the mountain, appropriately called New Gibraltar. The new town was incorporated in 1839, but in 1847 the name was changed to Stone Mountain to reflect the newly popular name for the granite structure. By the early nineteenth century, the mountain was a popular local tourist destination, and an observation tower was built on the summit called Cloud’s Tower, which was later removed by a storm and replaced by a smaller structure. Other accidents were also distressingly common, and the people who have plummeted to their deaths from Stone Mountain may number in the hundreds. These mishaps, however, did not serve to discourage tourists.

During the Civil War, Stone Mountain was the site of numerous skirmishes and at least one full-scale battle just outside the town. During the Reconstruction period, the town of Stone Mountain grew rapidly, including a sizable settlement of freed slaves in the area called Shermantown. At this time the beginnings of a large quarrying industry began to grow up around the mountain, also. The industry was helped by the large demand for high-quality granite required to rebuild after the war; the newly repaired railroad which ran near the mountain was capable of transporting enormous stones off the summit. Beginning in 1869 and extending for almost a century, high-quality granite was blasted and cut from the mountain and sold for use in many prestigious building projects, including the locks of the Panama Canal, the Cuban capitol, and innumerable post offices and federal and state office buildings.

The Confederate Memorial Carving

The idea to use the granite of Stone Mountain as a canvas for a Confederate memorial was first proposed in print in an editorial in the Atlanta Constitution in June, 1914, by William H. Terrell. The call was soon taken up by others, but by none more enthusiastically than Helen Jemison Plane, honorary life president of the Georgia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Plane conceived a bust carving of General Robert E. Lee on the face of Stone Mountain and asked the renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum to come to Georgia and give his opinion as to the feasibility of the work; Borglum is now best known for his sculpture of four presidents on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, which he began after his involvement with the Stone Mountain project. In August, 1915, Borglum arrived at Stone Mountain and, a few weeks later, presented his conception of the work to the UDC. He envisioned a huge carving of hundreds of figures in groups, representing political and military leaders of the Confederacy, as well as common soldiers of the cavalry and infantry.

While Plane and the UDC were enthusiastic about the plans, they were unable to secure adequate financing for such an enormous project. Additionally, many people doubted whether Borglum could accomplish the task, and whether the layered granite of the mountain could sustain such a carving without flaking away.

Further controversy was stirred in November, 1915, when the showing of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation prompted William Simmons to organize a new Ku Klux Klan, and he chose Stone Mountain as the location for the first rally, which was accompanied by a cross-burning. However, despite such problems, Borglum began work on the project in May of 1916.

The onset of America’s involvement in World War I halted the work for a time, however, and Borglum was not able to resume activities until 1921. The work then proceeded amid constant financial problems and conflicts between Borglum and the Stone Mountain Monumental Association, chaired by Hollins Randolph. In March, 1924, the United States Congress authorized the minting of a special half-dollar coin to commemorate the sculpture and raise funds for the project. Borglum’s accusations that Randolph was mishandling the coin funds effectively ended Borglum’s relationship with the project, and he left the state after destroying his original models.

Eventually, another sculptor, Augustus Lukeman, was chosen to complete the memorial. Lukeman’s design was completely different from Borglum’s, and vastly reduced in scale, from hundreds of figures in various groupings to three major figures seated on horseback–President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Nevertheless, though Lukeman began work on his plan and completed substantial portions of it (blasting away Borglum’s work in the process), he was unable to finish due to lack of funds and various disagreements with the association. After completing Lee’s head and part of his body in 1927, Lukeman moved on to other projects.

Finally, in 1958, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association was formed by an act of the Georgia legislature. This body eventually acquired thirty-two hundred acres of land for the Stone Mountain Memorial Park. In 1963, Walker Kirtland Hancock was chosen to complete Lukeman’s carving of Davis, Lee, and Jackson. Work officially resumed in July of 1964, and the finished sculpture was dedicated in May of 1970. Rising four hundred feet above the ground, the carving is approximately two hundred feet wide, ninety feet high, and reaches eleven feet deep into the mountain. It is the focal point for an extensive park complex that includes many recreation and historical opportunities for the more than one million tourists who visit annually.

Places to Visit

In addition to the enormous and impressive carving itself, Stone Mountain Park contains numerous square miles of protected wilderness area complete with hiking trails and other amenities. Naturalists often study the unique forms of flora and fauna found only in the area of the mountain, such as the Georgia oak. Further, there is a restored nineteenth century village, as well as a reproduction of an antebellum plantation, complete with actual historic buildings transported to the site from locations around Georgia; Memorial Hall contains various historic exhibits about the mountain and the Civil War in Georgia. The Stone Mountain Railroad and the sky lift transport visitors to the top of the mountain, and a traditional riverboat ride is also available. An extensive antique automobile and music museum displays some very fine examples of rare early automobiles and working versions of many early motion picture and music technologies.

For Further Information

  • Freeman, David B. Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain. Macon, Ga.: Mercer UP, 1997. This book is the most comprehensive and detailed source of information on the mountain, the carving, and the towns associated with Stone Mountain.
  • Garrett, Franklin M. Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events. 2 vols. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954. This two-volume history contains numerous references to Stone Mountain that help situate the monolith and its associated events in the context of other state places and incidents.
  • Hyder, William D., and R. W. Colbert. The Selling of the Stone Mountain Half Dollar. Colorado Springs: American Numismatic Association, n.d. Reprinted from The Numismatist, this short article reprint gives the most complete rendering of the coin controversy and the specifics of the various coins minted.
  • Morse, Minna. “The Changing Face of Stone Mountain.” Smithsonian 29, no. 10 (January, 1999): 56-67. This lengthy article provides information about the inhabitants of the city of Stone Mountain and Shermantown, the early African American settlement.
  • Neal, Willard. The Story of Stone Mountain. Atlanta, Ga.: American Lithograph, 1963. This short volume provides an excellent overview of the history of the mountain and the sculpture.
  • “Stone Mountain Park.” www.stonemountainpark .com. This site, maintained by the marketing organization of the state park at Stone Mountain, provides information about all the attractions and exhibits found at the park complex.