OUR NATIONAL LANDSCAPE CONTAINS MASSIVE monuments of the many other nations that have existed in this same space over time. Such as the San Jacinto Monument, in Houston, ten feet taller than the Washington Monument, commemorating the decisive battle that led to the creation of the Republic of Texas, an independent nation that existed adjacent to the USA for ten years. Or the crazy huge Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota, being built by some of the Lakota, to symbolically counter the national claim of the four white presidents carved on nearby Mount Rushmore. Then there is the Confederacy, which has monuments all over to keep its vestigial physical existence locked in place, in a big way.
These include the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, where its president, Jefferson Davis, resided and presided from 1861 to 1865, which is now a museum. It’s at his birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky, however, where his legacy really soars, more than 350 feet up, at one of the tallest memorial obelisks in the land. And then there are all the Civil War battle monuments, scattered all over the country, including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the most monumented historic site in the country, with 1,328 monuments, at last count.
But the most monumental monument of the Confederacy is the hard to miss, but often overlooked Stone Mountain, a natural rock outcrop rising 800 feet above the surrounding land north of Atlanta, Georgia, like an American Ayers Rock, on which is carved the “largest bas-relief sculpture in the world,” depicting three prominent Confederate figures: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
The carving was conceived by the filiopietistic (a great word, look it up) United Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1916, though it took nearly six decades to finish it. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who went on to carve most of Mount Rushmore, was originally commissioned to create the piece, supported by several local businessmen, who, like Borglum, were members of the KKK, and who regularly rallied at the site. The famously contentious Borglum abandoned the project in a huff, in 1925, after completing the head of Robert E Lee. Work was taken up by another sculptor, but then stopped in 1928, with little done for decades. Around 1960, the state of Georgia bought the site, and sculptors were hired to complete the piece, which was finally pronounced finished in 1972.
The memorial carving is still privately owned, by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, and though the land around it is a state park, the association has control over what kinds of activities can take place there. The commercial operations are by a private concession company, the Herschend Family Entertainment company, which started out by running Marvel Cave in the 1950s in the Ozarks, and now operates several amusement sites, waterparks, and entertainment entities, including Dollywood, Ride the Ducks amphibious tour vehicles, and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Activities at the park include an aerial tram called Skyride, commissioned by the Association in 1996, part of a major renovation and upgrade of visitor services at the park. The tram leaves from a museum and gift shop complex, and arrives at a café and gift shop at the top of the mountain. Visitors are free to wander the barren landscape of exposed rock for as long as they like, then return to the gift shop, where a Coca Cola, whose worldwide headquarters is nearby in Atlanta, sells for $3.39 a bottle.
The ride up and down the tram provides a close-up view of the relief carving, and easy access to the top of the mountain. Visitors can also hike to the summit up the western side, and there is a road, though it is closed to the public.
Activities at the base of the monument include summer laser shows which project onto the Confederate carving. And in the winter a snow slide is constructed, using sloped staging and snow making machines that can generate 360 tons of snow per day, though earlier this year the attraction had to be closed, due to a rare, actual snowstorm. Also in the park is a reconstructed antebellum plantation, farm and petting zoo, and lots more. Though it is sort of a state park, it’s really a kind of a family-style amusement park, and tickets for access and its activities run around $30-$60. This is no doubt one reason why most people stay away and don’t think about it, even though this Confederate Mount Rushmore feels like a parallel universe, and is one of America’s truly strange and wonderful places. ♦