Mount Rushmore is a United States National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Construction of the main sculpture began in 1927 and lasted until October 1941. It features facial carvings of four prominent United States Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the project. While Mount Rushmore may look like nothing more than four faces chiseled into the side of a mountain, there’s more than meets the eye. Borglum had big plans that he kept out of sight to the general public. See what he was dreaming up and what’s kept behind the heads of our forefathers today.
The Father of Mount Rushmore
In 1923, historian Doane Robinson, known as “The Father of Mount Rushmore,” came up with the idea to construct a monument to increase tourism in South Dakota. In 1924, he contacted sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was involved with The Confederate Memorial Carving on Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Robinson expressed his desire to do a similar carving in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Borlgum agreed. Originally, the monument was supposed to be in a location known as the Needles near Custer, South Dakota. However, the granite pillars proved to be too thin and would have risked crumbling.
The Presidential Carvings Weren’t The Original Intention
They settled on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Upon seeing Mount Rushmore, Borglum commented that “America will march along that skyline.” Congress authorized the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission on March 3, 1925.
However, carving the faces of the four presidents we see today wasn’t the original intention. At first, they planned to sculpt world famous people to attract visitors from across the globe. They also discussed carving major events from American history. They ultimately decided to go with the sculptures of presidents that we see today.
Why These Presidents?
Before Doane Robinson came up with the idea for Mount Rushmore, there had already been 29 presidents. So what made Gutzon Borglum decide on these four?
According to the National Parks Service, all four were chosen for what they represent to the United States. George Washington represents the birth of the nation, Jefferson represents the growth, Roosevelt represents the development, and Abraham Lincoln represents the preservation of the union. Although there were other candidates, Borglum felt that these four embodied the essence of the United States and were deserving of a spot on the monument.
Controversy With The Location
Before actual construction began, the project ran into a roadblock concerning its location. The design would require the transformation of the land around it and would permanently alter the geology of the area.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are sacred lands for numerous Native American tribes including the Lakotas, Cheyennes, Arapahos, and more. The project continued since the U.S. government had already claimed the area as a National Park. To this day, the hills are still used for ritualistic purposes by the Native Americans. Proper compensation for using the land is still being discussed.
By October 1927, construction had started. Gutzon Borglum hired 400 workers to help him turn his design into a reality. For Borglum, the monument wasn’t just going to be another one of his works. It was going to be his masterpiece and his permanent gift to the American people for generations to come.
But Borglum had even bigger plans for the monument then what he disclosed. He intended for the monument to be more than just carvings in the side of the mountain. He wanted to leave behind clues for future humans to learn about the United States.
Funding Created Numerous Restrictions
Gutzon Borglum had grander plans for the design of the monument. These designs included more than just the four presidents. He also wanted to add a map of the Louisiana Purchase on the face of the mountain. Within the map, he wanted to carve some of the nation’s highest accomplishments and significant events.
Unfortunately, the commission for these extra pieces was denied due to funding. The presidents were also supposed to be carved from the waist up, but limited funds put a halt to that too. However, Borglum was allowed to add something of his own — something that remains shrouded in mystery to this day.
The Carving Process Was Long But Efficient
Italian immigrant Luigi Del Blanco was chosen as Chief Carver on the mountain for his incredible ability to show emotions and personality in stone. Carving the faces involved dynamite and a process known as honeycombing.
Workers would drill small holes close together so they could remove tiny pieces by hand. They would then use a bumper tool or a hand facer to smooth the surface of the rock. Around 450,000 tons of rock was removed from the face of the mountain.
Complications During Construction
However, the project didn’t go off without any hitches. Originally, Thomas Jefferson was supposed to be on the right side of George Washington. They had even started constructing it that way.
Due to complications with the granite, they had to dynamite their first attempt at Jefferson and carve him on the left side. If it seems that Jefferson seems to be squished in, it’s because he is. The workers even feared that they weren’t going to be able to fit him.
The National Parks Service Steps In
In 1933, the National Parks Service took over Mount Rushmore under its jurisdiction. This merger helped improve infrastructure and funding for the whole project. The faces of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were completed in order from left to right.
Washington was completed and dedicated in 1934, Jefferson in 1936, and Lincoln in 1937. The face of Theodore Roosevelt was finally completed in 1939. However, during the construction of the faces, Gutzon Borglum also began working on his secret addition to the mountain.
Gutzon Borglum’s Secret Addition
Funding put a stop to many of the monuments original plans. However, the United States government authorized Gutzon Borglum’s special addition. Between 1938 and 1939, a 70-foot tunnel behind Abraham Lincoln’s head was carved into the mountain. This was intended by Borglum to be the entrance of what was to be called “The Hall of Records at Mount Rushmore.”
Here, some of the United State’s most important documents were to be housed. The entrance was going to be 20 feet high and 14 feet wide with doors opening into an 80-by-100-foot chamber. There would also be an eagle with a 38-foot wingspan above the entrance. The inscription above the eagle would read “America’s Onward March” and “Hall of Records.” Here, documents such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were going to be held in bronze and glass cabinets.
A Dream Cut Short
The Hall of Records was intended to be a glorified time capsule. Gutzon Borglum’s ultimate goal was for future generations to find the entrance and learn the history of the United States and all of its accomplishments. Unfortunately, Borglum died in 1941 before the entire monument could be completed. His son Lincoln stepped in to oversee the completion of the project.
His death and America’s involvement in WWII put a halt on the Hall of Records but not the monument itself. For decades, the hall remained nothing more than a tunnel that had been cut into the side of the mountain. It remained that way until decades later when others decided to honor Borglum for what he had done and intended to do for the United States.
There Was A Movement To Add Susan B. Anthony
In 1937, a new bill was introduced to Congress that pushed for Susan B. Anthony to be added to the sculpture. However, an appropriations bill was added to the project in fear of it costing too much money by adding Anthony.
The bill stated that all the funds must go towards the heads that had already been started and not any new ones. Although Anthony would have been a welcomed face on Mount Rushmore for her role in achieving women’s suffrage, it was not brought up again after the monument had been completed.
The Main Monument Was Completed With No Deaths
On October 31, 1941, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was considered a completed project. In total, the entire project cost $989,992.32, which was a lot less than if they had gone with some of the originals designs.
An astounding statistic is that there was not a single death of a worker while completing the monument. Considering a job of such size and risk, having no deaths is a big feat. In 1966, Mount Rushmore was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1991, President H.W. Bush officially dedicated Mount Rushmore. It was only a few more years until Gutzon Borglum’s wish was granted.
The Hall Was Eventually Completed (Somewhat)
Although Gutzon Borglum’s plans for the Hall of Records seemed to die with him in 1941, his dream carried on. On August 8, 1998, the tunnel was commemorated into a small Hall of Records. Although it’s nowhere near as extravagant as he had planned or hoped for, it’s still something. A repository of records was placed inside of the entry of the hall. The container is a teakwood box that has been placed inside a titanium vault and covered by a granite capstone.
A quote by Borglum is etched on the capstone which reads “..let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”
Gutzon Borglum Still Got His Records
Inside of the vault and box are sixteen porcelain panels. Written on those panels is the story of Mount Rushmore’s creation, who carved it, and why each of the presidents is significant. The panels include a brief history of the United States to give anyone who finds it some background about the country’s existence. It also contains an engraving of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Today, the entrance to the hall is sealed behind a 1,200-pound granite slab so that it cannot be disturbed. This is so because it was not built or meant for us, but for the people thousands of years in the future that may stumble upon it.
Maintaining Mount Rushmore
There’s a ton of work that goes into maintaining Mount Rushmore. Not just the grounds for the tourists but the mountain itself. This is because it was carved into granite which is more susceptible to cracking than most other stone.
In 1989, the National Park Service and the Mount Rushmore Society began to conduct studies to understand the structural integrity of the monument and where weak points might arise over the years. The study also helped to test the sealant for cracks created by Borglum which was made of linseed oil, white lead, and granite dust. It was discovered that it was ineffective at keeping water out.
New Sealant And Constant Monitoring
In order to keep maintain the integrity of the structure, the National Parks staff began to remove the old sealant and started replacing it with modern silicone. This way, the sealant will be able to withstand the range of temperatures that the Black Hills are subjected to as well as the rain.
To keep the silicone hidden, it is then dusted with granite powder. In addition to the new silicone, an electric monitoring system was installed that can detect even the smallest movement below 0.0001 inches. It can also record the temperature of the granite. This will help to prevent any unforeseen problems in the future.
Rarely Any Cleaning Occurs
Unsurprisingly, not nearly as much cleaning of the monument occurs as maintaining. This is mostly due to budget constraints which makes any cleaning that is done particularly minimal and only in desperate situations.
However, in 2005, a pressuring washing company named Kärcher did the United States a favor. They did a free cleanup with their equiptment which took weeks to perform using pressurized water at over 200 degrees. This was the best cleaning that the monument had received since its inception starting in 1927.
Mount Rushmore Today
In the late 1980s, a project was started to give the best experience possible to those who wish to visit the monument. This project led to the development of the visitor facilities, sidewalks, and other infrastructure around the monument.
These include the Mount Rushmore Visitors Plaza, Lincoln Borglum Museum, and the Presidential trail. The Presidential Trail allows guests to walk below the monument. These developments helped turn Mount Rushmore into South Dakota’s biggest tourist attraction and one of the nation’s proudest monuments.
Activities At The Monument
Although the sculpture is impressive enough to look at, there are some things to do if you plan on spending some time at the monument. At the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, there are exhibits and a short film to show the methods and reasoning that went into shaping the sculpture.
The Presidential Trail is 0.6 miles long with an opportunity to get up close and personal with the sculpture. There is a junior ranger program for children of all ages. There are also ranger talks which discuss the histories of the local tribes and the Evening Lighting Ceremony. There’s even a self-guided audio tour for those who want the full history of the monument.