Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Making Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is as much a product of dreams and determination as it is the work of a talented sculptor. 

The Father of Rushmore

In 1923, Doane Robinson, the aging superintendent of the South Dakota State Historical Society, had a vision of a massive mountain memorial carved from stone so large it would put South Dakota on the map. Robinson told all who would listen of his dream of giant statues of Western figures such as Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and legendary Sioux warriors marching along South Dakota's skyline. Robinson spoke to local organizations and wrote letter upon letter. 

Many South Dakotans be-lieved that a colossal sculpture would attract thousands of visitors with heavy wallets. Others found the notion ludicrous. Finally, when the newspaper stories stopped and the snickers ceased, Robinson enlisted the aid of the one man he knew could carry the torch—the respected U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck. 

Norbeck, a frequent visitor at the White House, had the admiration of his peers in the Senate as well as that of the farmers and ranchers of South Dakota who had sent him to Washington. Robinson's mountain-carving proposal captured the senior senator's imagination and he encouraged the historian to seek a sculptor capable of commanding such a project. 

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, one of America's most prolific artists, received a letter from Robinson proposing the project in August 1924. It couldn't have come at a more opportune moment; he was fed up with the project he was working on. Borglum, a fiery and stubborn artist, lived for visions, not setbacks. He accepted Robinson's offer. 

Mixed Signals

Upon his arrival in September 1924, the flamboyant Borglum politely, but forcefully informed Robinson and Norbeck that his life's work would not be spent immortalizing regional heroes. The sculptor insisted that the work demanded a subject national in nature and timeless in its relevance to history. 

By selecting four great presidential figures for the carving, the trio sought to create an eternal reminder of the birth, growth, preservation and development of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of individual liberty. 

Borglum soon embarked on a site-searching trip to find a grouping of rocks massive enough to support a giant sculpture. He examined the Needles, as Robinson suggested, but found the rock too brittle for carving and the spires disproportionate to the human form. He left and returned next year. It was on Borglum's second trip that he found Mt. Rushmore August 13, 1925. Next, Borglum and his party climbed Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet, this is the highest point between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. The surrounding vista inspired him. 

"Here is the place!" Borglum exhorted. "American history shall march along that skyline."

He set his sights on the craggy, pine-clad cliff known as Mount Rushmore, near the isolated mining town of Keystone. It had southeastern exposure, giving it direct sunlight most of the day, and was made of sound granite relatively free from fracture. Borglum carefully explored the crevices and sampled the rock of Mount Rushmore. With each test, he reconfirmed that he had found his mountain.

The Waiting Game

Senator Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson easily secured federal legislation to allow a mountain carving in Harney National Forest. A similar bill in the state Legislature was passed in 1925.

But months passed as supporters of the Rushmore project scrambled for funding. Environmentalists suggested the project would deface the mountainside. Others asked how a mortal sculptor could hope to improve on what a higher authority had already designed. As the calendars changed to 1926, most South Dakotans dismissed the whole fanciful conception. 

Presidential Attention

Then, in the spring of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge decided to spend his three-week summer holiday in the Black Hills. 

State officials immediately began preparing for the visit by remodeling the rustic State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, which was selected to be Coolidge's "summer White House." 

On June 15, Senator Norbeck and 10,000 South Dakotans warmly greeted President and Mrs. Coolidge, their two dogs and the First Lady's pet raccoon, as they stepped from the train in Rapid City. They were soon settled comfortably into the Game Lodge and the Dakotan way of life. Their three-week visit turned into a three-month stay.

Coolidge couldn't have known that his fishing skills were greatly enhanced by park officials. Before the president's arrival, chicken wire was stretched across the creek upstream and downstream from the president's quarters. Lunker trout from a nearby fish hatchery were trucked in nightly—so many that Coolidge couldn't help but fill his creel as he "learned to fish."

This extended vacation allowed Borglum and Norbeck enough time to convince Coolidge to participate in the formal dedication of Mount Rushmore. On August 10, the president rode horseback to the mountain, sporting cowboy boots and a 10- gallon hat given to him by local residents. 

"We have come here to dedi-cate a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty," Coolidge told a crowd of 1,000 South Dakotans. In an impassioned speech by a man not known for his passion, Coolidge became the first to refer to Mount Rushmore as a "national shrine," then pledged federal support for the project. 

After listening with satisfaction to the president's remarks, the 60-year-old Borglum climbed to the mountain's craggy summit and symbolically drilled six holes to mark the commencement of carving. The Mount Rushmore dream would em-brace the remaining 14 years of his life and leave a monument unlike any other. 

Men and Mountain

At first, it was just a job, a way to put food on the table. But, as the four faces emerged from the granite, the men who helped carve the memorial began to share the sculptor's dream. These drill-dusty, unemployed miners, who had originally sought only a paycheck in the heart of the Great Depression, became caught up in a challenge that would produce a national treasure.

In the six-and-a-half years of work that occurred on and off between 1927 and 1941, Borglum employed almost 400 local workers. Some built roads, ran the hoist house, generated power or sharpened thousands of bits for the pneumatic drills. Others set dynamite charges or completed delicate finishing work on the sculpture. 

Among the most highly skilled workers were those using dynamite. Using techniques he had developed at Stone Mountain and relying on skills his crew had acquired in mining, Borglum used the explosive in an innovative way that helped to remove large amounts of rock quickly and relatively inexpensively. His powder men became so skilled that they could blast to within four inches of the finished surface and grade the contours of the lips, nose, cheeks, neck and brow. In fact, 90 percent of the 450,000 tons of granite removed from the mountain was taken out with dynamite.

Model to Masterpiece

Borglum created a model of the four presidents on a 1-to-12-inch scale, meaning an inch on the model represented a foot on the cliff. This model has been preserved for viewing at the Sculptor's Studio. To transfer measurements from the model to the mountain, workers determined where the top of the head would be, then found the corresponding point on the model. A protractor was mounted horizontally on top of the model's head. A similar, albeit 12 times larger, apparatus was placed on the mountain. By substituting feet for inches, workers quickly determined the amount of rock to remove. 

Drillers then used the same measuring system and air-powered tools to drill closely spaced holes to exacting depths, a process known as "honeycombing." The rock between these holes was then broken away using chisels and hammers. The final process, known as "bumping," used a pneumatic drill and a special bit to leave the finished surface as smooth as a concrete sidewalk.

A skilled driller could make $1.25 per hour on the project which was better than the mines were paying. But Borglum's crew often had to endure extended layoffs due to a lack of funds and harsh winter weather. When spring or more funding came again, the workers would report back to the mountain, eager to get back to work on their adopted cause. 

As his dream neared its completion, Borglum's biggest fear was leaving a mystery for future generations. In 1938, Borglum began carving a giant vault in the canyon wall directly behind Mount Rushmore. Into this great hall, he planned to place records of the memorial, of Western civilization, of individual liberty and freedom. But Borglum's death and the country's entry into World War II intervened, and the Hall of Records was left unfinished. (In 1998, the National Park Service completed a scaled down version of the hall.)

After Borglum's death, his son, Lincoln, spent another seven months refining the monument. On October 31, 1941, he stopped construction on the sculpture, leaving Mount Rushmore as we know it today: a truly American icon.