A Monumental Man

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Creativity oftentimes reaches across time and space to bring into existence something of monumental significance. A person may even find that his or her creativity finds an outlet, indeed even opens the door, to an even greater accomplishment. In the early part of the twentieth century an American artist began work on a memorial to honor Confederate soldiers. As the work progressed, he encountered difficulties and was forced to devise creative solutions to move the project along. Little did he know that he would implement many of the same techniques to design the most famous monument in American history. His name was Gutzon Borglum. This is the story of how his work on Stone Mountain in Georgia prepared him for the work he did on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Gutzon Borglum spent his early years cultivating a career as an artist. He was born the son of Danish immigrants on March 25, 1867 on the border of Utah and Idaho but spent his youth in Fremont, Nebraska. Early on he showed a talent for drawing, and several of his teachers encouraged him to pursue a career in art. He moved to California to study at the San Francisco Art Association. His reputation became so great that he traveled to Europe in the early 1890s. He visited France where he was admitted into the French National Society of Beaux Arts and Britain where he became a member of the British Royal Society of British Artists. He returned to America in late 1901 and soon transitioned to sculpting. He gained national recognition for his bust of Abraham Lincoln that was displayed in Washington, D.C. Gutzon Borglum was soon receiving requests from all over the country to sculpt figures of importance.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, Gutzon Borglum’s reputation as a sculptor had spread throughout the country. He produced a highly acclaimed statue of Abraham Lincoln for the city of Newark, New Jersey as well as statues of various state politicians. In 1915 Gutzon received a letter from the president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy asking him to carve the head of General Robert E. Lee on a Georgia mountainside. He had never undertaken such a task before and was intrigued by the offer. Before accepting, however, he decided to survey the sight. Upon arriving in Atlanta, he was greeted by the organization’s president and several other leading women. The women drove Gutzon sixteen miles to Stone Mountain where Gutzon stared in awe at the bald wall of the mountain that was 900 feet high and a mile and a half wide. He told the women that any monument “would look like a postage stamp on the side of a barn.” Still, he determined to think of some way to help the women realize their dream.

As Borglum studied the mountain, he recognized the consequence of what he was being asked to do. This was an opportunity to carve a memorial to the courage and valor of the Confederate soldiers who fought for the southern cause of independence. After spending three days surveying the mountain, he presented a plan to his hosts whereby he would carve a body of mounted and dismounted Confederate soldiers surrounding Generals Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and President Jefferson Davis. The women were surprised by Borglum’s audacity and were concerned about how to pay for such a project. To allay their concerns, Gutzon traveled to New York and Washington, D.C. to give speeches in support of the undertaking. He also addressed the national gathering of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in San Francisco, California. The Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association was also formed to help raise funds. Money began to pour in, and Gutzon was given the green light to begin work.

Gutzon was among those who attended the formal ribbon cutting of the memorial on May 20, 1916, but no sooner had the ceremony ended than he confronted a myriad of technical problems. The first problem he faced was a fundamental one — how to find a way for himself and his workers to scale the mountain in order to reach the construction site. He joined with a carpenter named Jesse Tucker and studied the mountain. The answer was obvious but certainly not simple. They would have to build a 480-foot staircase down the side of the mountain. The staircase was quickly completed, but Gutzon had by then encountered his next basic challenge — how to provide stability and mobility for the workers. The men needed a platform to stand on along with a means of moving around the mountain. He traveled to Ohio to meet with an engineer named Lester Barlow who owned a hoist company. The two men talked it over, and Barlow finally suggested that he develop a leather harness with a saddle seat. The harness would be attached to a winch placed on top of the mountain. Controlled by an operator, the winch could then raise or lower a person all over the mountain. Similarly, Barlow and Tucker constructed platforms for the workers to stand on as they carved the faces. Gutzon was pleased with these innovations and immediately saw them implemented. Actual work on the mountain could now begin.

Borglum had to delay work when America entered World War I in April 1917, but with the war’s end in November 1918, he turned his sights back on Stone Mountain. Scaffolding and the necessary platforms had been constructed, but now Gutzon had to address the obvious, but nonetheless bewildering, characteristic of an amorphous granite mountain that had a lot of “extra” stone on it. The excess stone would have to be removed before carving could actually begin. Borglum consulted engineers about the best way to remove the stone and was advised to use light amounts of dynamite, a technique that required the right amount and placement of the explosive. The face was cleared, and it was possible for Borglum to begin carving the memorial after he had painted an outline of the figures to blast away.

At the same time Gutzon had been occupied with removing the excess stone, he had also been occupied with finding a way of actually getting the figures onto the mountain. He had originally considered simply painting them on and then carving them out; however, he quickly discovered that he was unable to get the proportions of the figures right. To solve this new problem, he decided the best alternative was to build a projector and project the image onto the mountain so he could trace the outline. He contacted E. S. Porter of the Precision Machine Company, and the company produced a giant projector for Gutzon to use. After the projector arrived at Stone Mountain, the workers successfully painted the images on the mountain. Carving on the head of General Robert E. Lee finally began on June 18, 1923.

With carving officially underway, Gutzon invested himself wholeheartedly in the project. He sold his New York studio and moved to Georgia. From June 1923 to January 1924, he and his team worked day and night on the head of Lee, which was officially unveiled on January 19, 1924, what would have been Lee’s 117th birthday. Gutzon reveled in the cheers and applause of those who attended the ceremony. He immediately set to work on the head of Stonewall Jackson while simultaneously seeking more financial support for the project. He traveled throughout the country giving speeches and soliciting funds. He even convinced President Calvin Coolidge, Congress and the U.S. Mint to strike a commemorative fifty-cent piece. These travels ultimately caused friction between Borglum and the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association.

The association and Gutzon had several heated debates regarding the lack of progress on the monument. Many members of the association believed Gutzon was too neglectful of the work since he was not on the mountain every day. Gutzon tried to convince them that there were difficulties in carving a mountain, most notably the appearance of flaws and defects that caused Gutzon to change his original design. He further accused the association of being consumed with what he considered minor office affairs. These disagreements came to an end on February 25, 1925 when Gutzon received word the association had decided to vote him off the project. The members decided to give his models to individual stonecutters and allow them to complete the monument. Gutzon determined that would not happen. He ordered his workers to destroy his plaster casts of Lee and Jackson as well as the studio model of the memorial. The association issued a warrant for his arrest for allegedly destroying their property. He fled to North Carolina to avoid arrest, and he was still there two months later when he heard how the association had hired a new sculptor, Augustus Lukeman, to take over the memorial’s construction. Lukeman had decided to start over and had blasted Borglum’s head of Lee off the mountain. It was an ignoble end to what Borglum saw as his life’s work. All his creative efforts seemed for naught. It was at this his bleakest moment that South Dakota historian Doane Robinson approached Gutzon about carving a national monument in South Dakota.

Gutzon Borglum spent most of the next sixteen years organizing, designing, creating and carving the most famous and iconic monument in the United States. In the heartland of America, the Black Hills of South Dakota, he would depict four of our greatest presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt — known as Mount Rushmore. He used many of the same techniques he had perfected at Stone Mountain. He began by building a stairway and scaffolding to hold platforms for the workers. He used the same winch and leather harness system to allow workers to move around the face of Rushmore. He and his team even used the same dynamite techniques to blast through excess stone to reach the right location before starting to use drills and other tools to carve each face. As the carving continued, Gutzon would engage in fights over funding and who should control the project, but through it all, he would never stop working. He proudly watched as each president was dedicated, the entire country increasingly awed at every unveiling. Washington was dedicated on July 4, 1930; Jefferson on August 30, 1936; Lincoln on September 17, 1938; and Teddy Roosevelt on July 2, 1939. Two years later, on March 6, 1941, Gutzon Borglum, patriot and artist, died at age seventy-four of complications from surgery. His greatest legacy still stands today for all to see, a true symbol of our great nation.

Gutzon Borglum’s experiences proved how vital creativity is if a person wishes to achieve success in any area of life, and not just creativity in design but in solving problems as well. Without his work and accompanying challenges on Stone Mountain, he might never have successfully completed carving the figures on Mount Rushmore. He is no longer remembered for his first attempt in mountain carving, but it was that adventure that paved the way for his ultimate success. Gutzon Borglum’s perseverance and creative genius resulted in the creation of a national monument — one whose endurance would, he hoped, match his beloved country’s.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Monumental Man

  1. Eric Brown

    I really enjoyed this story Jake. I hadn’t known Borglum was involved with a project involving Stone Mountain prior to his work in South Dakota. You mentioned Borglum’s perseverance; a trait I believe is essential to all successful people. Excellent job, Jake!

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