A town at the base of the mountain bears the same name. Before 1800, Native Americans used the mountain as a meeting and ceremonial place. Stone Mountain emerged as a major tourist resort in the 1850s, attracting residents of nearby Atlanta and other cities. The carving of a Confederate memorial on the side of the mountain attracted national and international attention during the twentieth century. Today, Stone Mountain is a tourist attraction that draws approximately 4 million visitors a year.
Archeological evidence indicates that Early Archaic Indians were the first humans to visit Stone Mountain about 9,000 years ago. In the late seventeenth century Europeans, probably English traders and slave raiders, journeyed to Stone Mountain. Disease followed these Europeans to central Georgia, killing thousands of Native Americans. In response to the threat posed by contact with whites, surviving indigenous tribes made alliances with one another during the late eighteenth century. These alliances became known as the Creek Confederation. Although Stone Mountain lay between the Creek Confederation and the Cherokees, it became an important meeting place, because two major trails connected it to the eastern part of the state. European settlers also increasingly moved into the region during the early nineteenth century.
The 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs opened settlement for European Americans. These whites settled the base of Stone Mountain in the late 1820s, and the town was officially named Stone Mountain in 1847. The building of railroads in the 1830s and 1840s allowed local farmers to participate in the larger market economy. Railroads also connected residents from newly settled Atlanta and other cities such as Augusta to Stone Mountain. By 1850 urbanites increasingly visited Stone Mountain, admiring its natural scenery, fine hotels, and man-made attractions.
Quarrying was another business that benefited from railroads in the nineteenth century. Stone Mountain granite was desirable for use as building stone. It was used, for example, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and in the locks of the Panama Canal. The railroad made it easy for entrepreneurs to transport this granite to larger markets. Unfortunately, quarrying also destroyed several spectacular geological features on Stone Mountain, such as the Devil’s Crossroads, which was located on top of the mountain.
Two events brought Stone Mountain attention during the twentieth century: the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan (KKK) there in 1915, and the struggle to complete the Confederate memorial.
Inspired by D. W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation (which romanticized the earlier heyday of the Klan), William Simmons, a minister and organizer for fraternal associations, planned induction ceremonies to take place a week before the movie’s opening in Atlanta. The ceremonies were intended to arouse the KKK from its forty-year dormancy in Georgia. Simmons secured an official charter from the state of Georgia, and on Thanksgiving evening of 1915, he and sixteen other members of the new KKK ignited a flaming cross atop Stone Mountain. The second Klan went on to attract about 5 million supporters by the early 1920s.
Even more than the birth of the second KKK, the Confederate memorial gave Stone Mountain notoriety throughout the twentieth century. A product of the Lost Cause era, the memorial was originally conceived as a symbol of the white South. In 1914 the Atlanta division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) advocated for the creation of an organization to lead the construction of a memorial on the side of Stone Mountain. Caroline Helen Jemison Plane, the leader of the Atlanta UDC chapter, incorporated the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Associaction (SMCMA) in 1916 and shortly thereafter solicited the suport of renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a northerner who had also designed the presidents’ heads featured on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Plane originally wanted Borglum to create a memorial featuring Robert E. Lee leading Confederate troops and KKK members across the mountain’s summit, but the final memorial did not include KKK members. World War I (1917-18) delayed the project until 1923. Then, in 1925, with only the head of Lee carved, a growing rift between the sculptor and the SMCMA over artistic control ended with the association firing Borglum, thereby halting construction. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Confederate memorial remained unfinished. In 1941 Governor Eugene Talmadge formed the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) to continue work on the memorial, but the project was delayed once again by the U.S. entry into World War II (1941-45).
It was not until the 1950s that interest in (and funding for) the completion of the Confederate memorial was revived. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, segregationists hoped that the memorial would serve as a reminder of white supremacy. According to historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, “The rising tide of African-American activism in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision reignited broad interest in Confederate symbols as many white southerners fired up for 'battle’ with the nation again.” In 1958 the state of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain for about $2 million, and Governor Marvin Griffin later signed legislation to establish the SMMA as a state authority. This meant that the SMMA’s nine-member board would be appointed by the governor but that the SMMA would be a self-supporting entity that did not receive tax dollars.
The state and SMMA agreed to carve the images of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on the mountain and to construct a plaza at its base. In 1970 planners dedicated the memorial, and an estimated 10,000 visitors came to witness its unveiling. In 1998 the SMMA signed on to a public-private partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation (HFEC). HFEC manages all the commercial operations in the park, and the SMMA manages HFEC’s lease, maintains public areas, and provides for public safety.
Since the 1980s Stone Mountain has remained a tourist attraction, although many groups denounce the memorial as racist. Millions of tourists from around the world marvel at the natural scenery. The park has increased visitation by promoting such special events as the Yellow Daisy Festival, the Highland Games, and Easter Sunrise services. Other attractions include a reconstructed antebellum plantation built in the 1960s, a skylift, a waterside complex, and a thirty-six-hole golf course. In 1996 Stone Mountain provided venues for three Olympic Games events: archery, tennis, and cycling. The most popular attraction in the park is the laser show. This show now symbolizes the promise of a New South, imposing other southern faces, including that of Martin Luther King Jr., over the Confederate icons.