SOME time before the work was stopped in 1925, the twenty-four thousandth cubic yard of rock had been removed. Exact figures are not available, because sheriff's officers seized part of the records and neither Borglum nor Tucker was thereafter allowed to ex- amine them. But Tucker distinctly recalls the day when the check ran up to twenty-four thousand.
Taking twenty-four thousand cubic yards as the measure, however, the figures reveal something of the immensity of the work accomplished in the compara- tively short time that the workers were permitted to move rock. A cubic foot of granite weighs one hundred and sixty-five pounds, a cubic yard, four thousand, four hundred and fifty-five pounds, approximately two and a quarter tons. In other words, Borglum took out of that mountain in less than twenty months, much more than fifty thousand tons of material. These figures alone seem to be sufficient answer to the charge brought later that the work was being neglected.
Infinitely more troublesome than the mass of rock to be removed, however, was the question of methods of attack. There were no rules, no precedents, for this sort of work. The difficulty of getting at the rock and actually getting it cut out, was great, since it had to come off the face of the cliff, and the workmen must be suspended between heaven and earth, but that was only part of the trouble. There was the psychological problem to be solved. These workmen were not to be mere quarrymen, but sculptors. They were to carve rock, not simply to cut it. Their work had to be done with the nicest precision, which meant that they must concentrate every faculty upon it, to the exclusion of all else. But how is a man to concentrate every faculty upon carving a bit of stone when he knows that death is four inches behind him?
It was clear to Borglum that he not only had to bring his working crew within reach of the stone that they were to work, but that he must bring them there with quiet minds. He must contrive to banish from their consciousness the specter of death upon the rocks hundreds of feet below. He must not only make the job safe in actuality, but he must make it so clearly safe that men not abnormally timid would dismiss worry from their minds. And as to the accomplishment of this, he had no guide whatever.
But the first necessity was to get to the place where work was to start. Borglum explained to Tucker that he wished a platform to be fixed to the face of the cliff and located it by pointing out a certain bulge in the rock. He indicated how he thought that bulge might be reached and left the details to Tucker. "Go there," he said, and then turned his attention to other details.
Borglum and his chief assistant stood on the top of Stone Mountain when the order was issued. "That bulge in the rock" was some five hundred feet below the spot where they were standing. No human foot had ever touched it, unless, perchance, some one of the poor victims of the mountain had struck it in the course of his awful descent. It was then May, 1916, a day or two after the ceremony which had dedicated the mountain to its purpose as a memorial. The way had been cleared for the work to begin. Between two and three-thousand dollars were in hand, raised by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The leader of the Atlanta chapter, Mrs. Helen Plane, had approached the owner of the property long before, and had found him most hospitable to the enterprise and willing to do anything in his power to forward it. This man, Samuel H. Venable, of Atlanta, was later to play an important part in carrying the work forward; at this time he had already done the one indispensable thing -he had given the mountain
"How much will you require?" was the only question he asked of Borglum, when the sculptor went to talk to him about it.
"Well, I want this side of the mountain, but I also particularly want the sky," was the answer.
Venable had anticipated a large request, but this staggered him.
"The sky ?" he repeated.
"Yes," said Borglum, "I want so much of the top of the mountain above the sculpture as will make it impossible for anything ever to be built on the sky-line to detract from the dignity of the memorial."
The owner saw the point instantly, and agreed. The papers accordingly had been drawn to include the area at the top of the cliff far enough back from the edge to render it certain that no jimcrack architecture ever can be placed in a position to interfere with the spectator's enjoyment of the carved mountainside. There will never be anything above the memorial except the expanse of the sky.
Now it was time to begin the actual work. The design was already in existence, the central group had been modeled, and there was nothing further for the sculptor to do on the scene until he could begin to apply his drawing to the surface of the rock. He had determined on the spot to begin, and had brought Tucker to the top of the mountain to point it out to him.
Stone Mountain is almost at the extreme southern end of the great massif known as the Appalachian system. In northwestern Georgia and northern Alabama that system subsides gradually into the plain that edges the Gulf of Mexico. But it does not end abruptly. First the mountain chains that are prominent in Virginia and North Carolina are broken up into comparatively short ridges. Then the ridges become distinct hills, more or less detached, but studding the whole upland country. Gradually these hills become lower and lower, until they fade out in the flat country of southern Alabama.
One of these, an isolated hill, is Stone Mountain, which rises somewhat gradually on its southern side, but breaks away abruptly to the north in the tremendous cliff that is to bear the memorial. Borglum and Tucker stood at the top of this cliff on that May morning eleven years ago. Below them north Georgia spread away like a map, all its lesser hills flattened out by the great height. At the foot of the mountain nestled the little village of Stone Mountain, a village of toy houses inhabited by figures out of a child's Noah's Ark, as seen from the mountain crest. The white ribbon of a state highway curled lazily away from the base of the hill, and a railway cut sharply athwart the green and brown landscape, black, straight, rigid, as if laid down by a ruthless penman with a ruler. It was the line to Athens, on the far horizon; to South Carolina, just over the edge of the world; to Richmond, the old capital, and to Washington, the new, of the sometime Confederate States. But here, on the crest, the two men were out of the world. The busy affairs of life were spread before them, but detached, remote from this spot heaved up so high toward heaven that life had deserted it and of all the uproar of the world below, not a whisper penetrated here. Sunlight and silence possessed the summit. Vultures were content to float far below, and it was curious to look down upon their backs as they sailed insolently along the face of that beetling mass of stone.
"You see that bulge in the rock?" said Borglum, pointing to a slight protuberance of the stone that thrust out, midway between heaven and earth "We must establish our first platform there. Go there."
He went away. Tucker called up all his forces, and the nine years' battle between man and mountain began.
The first men summoned were certain negroes whom Tucker had employed on other work. All his life the Georgian had worked negroes, and he knew them as a man learns to know them only by a lifetime of daily association with them on the job. He knows that the right kind of negro, rightly handled, is the best laborer on the face of the earth, and his experience as a contractor had made him acquainted with many of the right kind. For this particular job he picked his gang with unusual care. He sought for men who were strong and agile and endowed with the necessary intelligence to do the sensible thing in an emergency, without waiting for orders. Since his reckless experience with the flag, he had acquired prodigious respect for that cliff, and while he intended to go to the bulge, he did not intend to drop any of his workmen into the chasm on the way.
He hauled timbers up the back of the mountain. He brought up drills and hammers and lengths of stout cable. He brought up bolts and spikes and many steel bars, an inch and a quarter square and roughened on the surface, such steel as is used to reinforce concrete in big building operations. He brought up his hand-picked gang of negroes, and set them to drilling holes in the surface of the rock. He made his holes two inches in diameter and ten inches apart, and into the holes he set bars so that they projected eight or ten inches. It was then necessary to anchor the bars, so that they would not rattle around in the holes, or pull out. Lead or babbitt metal is customarily used for such work, poured in molten. But metal, when it cools, shrinks a little, so while it might be trusted to hold the bar in place, there would inevitably be a little play, and Tucker intended to have a firm foothold. So when his bars were in place he poured around them molten sulphur, which does not shrink when it cools. This was a trick Borglum had learned in erecting great sculptural groups. Soon the projecting ends of his bars were fixed as firmly as the very mountain itself. Then he made a set of ordinary stairs, with timbers two by eight inches for string-pieces, and carefully he slid the stairs down the slope until the upper end rested against his projecting bars. Then he bolted his string-pieces to the bars, and had a flight of steps that might break, but could not possibly tear loose. At the bottom of the flight, though, there was nothing except the smooth stone, and it was not practical for men to stand on the bottom steps and drill holes into the rock.
To overcome this difficulty, he adopted an expedient that is illustrative of the hair-raising character of the work. At the top of the slope he fixed a great anchorage, firm and strong, to which he attached a big cable. At the end of the cable, he fixed four smaller ropes to which he fastened a complicated harness specially designed to fit around the body of a man. Into each harness went a man, and the cable was paid out until the men reached the spot where the next hole was to be drilled. Then one of them sat down, held in place by his harness, and applied the point of the drill to the rock, while the others, with their feet on the rock but the bulk of their weight thrown into the harness and its sustaining cable, swung the heavy hammers. So the holes were drilled. It was perfectly simple and perfectly safe, as long as the cables held; but if a man let his hammer slip, or the holder lost his grip on the drill, that particular tool would have to be picked up by some one on the level ground, eight hundred feet below. A strong man, swinging a sledge-hammer upon a drill with all his might, necessarily puts a tremendous strain on a supporting cable. Had one of them snapped, a man's life would have been snuffed out. But none snapped. The work on Stone Mountain has never cost a life, because no man ever went down that hill until keen and vigilant eyes had inspected every inch of the rope by which literally his life was to hang.
At the bottom of the first flight of steps, a second flight was bolted, and a third at the bottom of that. When Borglum returned three weeks later, he could walk quietly down a long flight of stairs to a broad platform at the bottom. The inner edge of the platform was set against "that bulge in the rock." Tucker had gone there.