by Liz McGeachy

Photos Supplied Courtesy Larry Winslett

Mark Lassiter inspects a “dutchman” repair at General Lee’s elbow for signs of wear. There are ten such repairs in the whole gigantic carvingThousands of people visit Stone Mountain Park north of Atlanta each year to view the relief sculpture of three important Civil War figures carved into the side of the mammoth granite dome. From the lawn 400 feet below the carving, the images of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson look so solid and imposing, it’s hard to imagine anything could affect them, but even carvings like this must be maintained.

The Stone Mountain carving is just visible at the lower right, above the trees in the foreground.How is such a feat accomplished? Larry Winslett, who is a photographer and the land management plan coordinator for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, and Mark Lassiter, who is an engineer from Greenville, S.C., a mountain climber, and a cave explorer, know it takes a high resolution camera, climbing gear, and a lot of skill and patience.

A full view of the entire “tablet” or carved area on the mountain, which spans some 190 feet, and is 90 feet tall“When the carving was completed in the 1970s, it was in good shape and didn’t need regular maintenance,” said Winslett. “But eventually they decided it needed regular inspections. In 2005 the association implemented a land management plan that includes photographing the carving every year and physical inspections every three years.”

Mark Lassiter pauses in his descent during the 2012 inspection tourIt’s Winslett’s job to take photographs of the carving every year, which he is able to do from the memorial lawn below by using a long lens and a high resolution camera. He takes photographs of the tablet surrounding the actual carving, which is three acres (or larger than a football field), as well as the carving of the three men on horseback. The carving proper measures 90 by 190 feet and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain.

Winslett’s photographs create a survey of the area, which he sends to Lassiter, who is considered the caretaker of the carving. Lassiter pays close attention to how the photographs may have changed since the year before, including drill holes that may have crumbled, lichen or other vegetation that may have grown, soil that has washed down, insect nests that have appeared, and other changes.

Then every three years–usually in the spring–the real maintenance work takes place, when Lassiter uses his climbing gear to rappel down 800 feet from the top of the mountain to the carving. His first inspection was in 2002, and he helped with another one in 2003. When the land management plan was created in 2005, he began doing the physical inspections every three years.

“It’s not my main line of work,” Lassiter said. “I’m a geologist and do civil engineering, but I’m also a lifetime mountain climber and cave explorer, so I got called in to help about ten years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Lassiter said he is concentrating on three things while inspecting the carving: The first is defoliating the tablet surrounding the actual carving.

“The tablet has cracks from blasting so it can take on vegetation,” he said. “In the carving proper, I’ve never had to remove any vegetation.”

The second function is examining the joints and drill holes in the carving, and caulking with a natural stone silicone caulk. The third function is to inspect the “Dutchmen” repairs. These are places where a piece of stone is cut out and a new stone is quarried from the mountain and installed to replace it. Lassiter said there are ten such repairs in the carving.

“They aren’t repairs caused from errors by the carvers,” he said. “They’re in there because a change was needed after the carving was completed. For instance one of the belt buckles wasn’t accurate and needed to be updated.” 

Lassiter said that seven of the dutchmen pieces are keyed backed into the mountain and are not a problem, but three were set in with bolts and pins to support them and the seams were filled in with mortar. Now that mortar has begun to crumble, so Lassiter is refilling them with caulk. He doesn’t do the bottom seam because he doesn’t want water to get caught in there and freeze. 

“Unfortunately those bottom seams are not very pleasing aesthetically because they create a black line,” Lassiter said. “The worst place is General Jackson’s forehead, which looks rather rough. In my mind though, this is not unlike General Jackson’s history, since he had such a rough go of it. Unfortunately, because of the way it’s structured, this rough exfoliation has to remain.”

These details are not likely to be noticed by most visitors to the carving. After all, the carving is actually much larger than it appears from the ground. As an example, a person could easily stand inside one of the horse’s ears. Nevertheless, it’s important that the dutchmen pieces be maintained to the highest quality possible to prolong the life of the carving and keep up its appearance.

Before the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the park in 2008, Lassiter had to do some tricky work on a dutchman block in General Jackson’s beard. The block was small, and he was worried about drilling into it.

“I brought in some contractors from Janod Inc. in Canada to help. It worked out fine, but we spent a lot of effort researching the project first. We quarried out four or five stones from the Stone Mountain quarry and did some sample drilling and trying different bolts, finally using one-inch stainless steel pins. I think they’ll be good for hundreds of years if not into perpetuity.”

Lassiter usually works alone on these tasks, but in 2011 he had a one-time chore that required help – cleaning off some loose rock and a bit of old fencing from above the carving. He and some helpers from Nationwide Building Services ended up moving three tons of rock off the tablet above the carving. 

“Of course, you can’t throw it off, so we had to bag it and carry it up,” he said. “Plus it was in the heat of the summer. That was a hard job.” 

Generally Lassiter finds the work enjoyable and says he plans to continue it as long as he’s able.

“If you’re used to hanging off ropes like I am with climbing, it’s not an issue. I’m 61 and as long as I’m physically able to do the work, which at this point I am, I’ll continue to do it. I enjoy the work and I find the carving interesting. I’ve gotten pretty attached to it.”

The Stone Mountain carving was started in 1915 and was not completed until 1972. Three sculptors worked on the carving during its creation: Gutzon Borglum, who would later carve the Mount Rushmore sculpture in South Dakota, had the first vision for the sculpture in 1915 and worked on it until a dispute caused him to leave the project. Augustus Lukeman took over and created Lee’s head in the 1920s but funding ran out before the project could be completed. In 1958, the state of Georgia purchased the mountain and the surrounding land and created the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which currently has authority over the park but receives no state funding. In 1964 Walker Kirkland Hancock was hired to complete the carving, which he did in 1972.

Lassiter has high praise for the creators of the sculpture and believes the carving will last a long time.

“Like any stone, this is going to weather,” he said. “But I’ve spent a lot of time on rock, and this is some of the best quality I’ve ever seen. The rock in this carving is very strong and unfractured, especially compared to the rock in other carvings like Crazy Horse where there are more seams. Also, the carvers did a spectacular job when they created it. It doesn’t hold a single drop of water. They figured out how to trench it and did a good job.”

You can find out more about Stone Mountain Park and the Confederate Memorial Carving at