Mount Rush­more: Shrine of democ­racy

Dis­cover how the United States made a na­tional mon­u­ment out of a moun­tain­side

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Do­minic Eames

Ex­plore the mak­ing of a na­tional mon­u­ment in pic­tures

foun­da­tions of a na­tion

The four US Pres­i­dents of the Mount Rush­more Na­tional Memo­rial have kept their silent vigil in the Black Hills of South Dakota for nearly 80 years. The scene to­day may be calm as the sun rises on the 18-me­tre-high gran­ite faces of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Theodore Roo­sevelt and Abra­ham Lin­coln, but that is noth­ing like dur­ing its am­bi­tious con­struc­tion. It took 14 years – be­set by fund­ing short­falls, de­sign al­ter­ations and op­po­si­tion from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and lo­cal Na­tive Amer­i­cans – to blast and sculpt the mon­u­ment. The idea for such a colos­sal carv­ing had come in 1923 from his­to­rian Doane Robin­son, ea­ger to en­tice tourism to his home state. He sug­gested like­nesses of Na­tive and Old West fig­ures, like Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buf­falo Bill Cody, say­ing, “We must have def­i­nite things to play up and work upon the imag­i­na­tion of

the tourists.” He was proven right, just not in the way he en­vi­sioned.

the Model pres­i­dent

Seen in his stu­dio shap­ing an early model, sculp­tor Gut­zon Bor­glum chose four pres­i­dents to sym­bol­ise the his­tory of the United States. Wash­ing­ton be­cause he led the colonists dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Jef­fer­son was the pri­mary au­thor of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, Lin­coln kept the coun­try united through a civil war, and Roo­sevelt saw it be­come a global power. “I want to cre­ate a mon­u­ment so in­spir­ing that peo­ple from all over Amer­ica will be drawn to come and look and go home bet­ter cit­i­zens,” Bor­glum de­clared.

a blank can­vas

Robin­son hoped the carv­ings would ap­pear on a col­lec­tion of nat­u­rally-formed pil­lars in the Black Hills, ap­pro­pri­ately named the Nee­dles. But they were too un­sta­ble, so a nearby moun­tain with a large face of solid gran­ite was cho­sen. Once known as Six Grand­fa­thers, the site was later gained its mod­ern name af­ter Charles E Rush­more, a New York lawyer sent to check prospec­tors’ prop­erty ti­tles in the area in the 1880s. Against the crit­i­cism of con­ser­va­tion­ists, con­struc­tion got un­der­way on 4 Oc­to­ber 1927 with ex­plo­sives be­ing used to break up the moun­tain­side.

Ready to Mount

By the time Bor­glum fi­nalised the de­sign for Mount Rush­more and was able to cre­ate this 1:12 model, he had been forced to make sev­eral ma­jor changes. Jef­fer­son moved from Wash­ing­ton’s right side to be­hind his left shoul­der, mean­ing Lin­coln was pushed fur­ther along, while Roo­sevelt had to be carved much deeper into the rock than an­tic­i­pated. Once Bor­glum was happy, count­less mea­sure­ments of the most metic­u­lous de­tails were taken from the model and trans­ferred, mul­ti­ply­ing by 12, on to the moun­tain. Fea­tures of the four faces were marked with red paint.

the fifth face

While Bor­glum wanted to in­spire Amer­i­cans, the idea of carv­ing gi­ant heads of four white men in the Black Hills was a po­tent sym­bol of be­trayal to the Lakota Sioux peo­ple. The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 had granted them the land, which they held to be sa­cred, but the dis­cov­ery of gold there quickly saw the agree­ment ig­nored. Na­tive Amer­i­cans have long at­tempted to have their side of the story known. From the late 1950s to 1970s, a Lakota man named Ben Black Elk would greet vis­i­tors and pose for pho­tos, earn­ing him the un­of­fi­cial ti­tle of the ‘fifth face’ of Mount Rush­more.

lin­coln Re­born

It was said that the most chal­leng­ing of the four heads was Abra­ham Lin­coln’s, on ac­count of his dis­tinc­tive beard. Af­ter the pow­der­men had blasted away most of the rock – to within a few inches of where the faces be­gan – work­ers drilled hun­dreds of lit­tle holes close to­gether. This ‘hon­ey­comb­ing’ weak­ened the gran­ite so it could be re­moved eas­ily, even by hand, be­fore the sur­face was smoothed with bumper tools.

skills with drills

The project re­quired a to­tal of 400 work­ers, many of them used to min­ing more than scal­ing moun­tain faces. Rock would be re­moved with dy­na­mite ini­tially be­fore men would be low­ered from the top in sling-like har­nesses called ‘bo­sun chairs’ to use jack­ham­mers, drills and chis­els. Th­ese two are be­ing su­per­vised by Bor­glum him­self. Op­er­a­tors on top of the heads winched them up and down with the help of ‘call boys’ sat on the edge shout­ing in­struc­tions. As this was the time of the Great De­pres­sion, such death-de­fy­ing work earned around eight dol­lars a day.

com­ing face to face

There was so much drilling that black­smiths were on­site to sharpen up to 400 drills a day, but dy­na­mite ac­tu­ally did the vast ma­jor­ity of the work. An es­ti­mated 90 per­cent of the ‘carv­ing’ was done with ex­plo­sives, re­mov­ing around 450,000 tons of rock. Re­mark­ably, not a sin­gle worker died on Mount Rush­more – while an­other con­struc­tion project of the 1930s, Hoover Dam, suf­fered more than 100 deaths.

what a Rush – More ac­tion!

The com­pleted Mount Rush­more was the set­ting for the fi­nale of Al­fred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North By North­west, star­ring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Per­mis­sion had been given for film­ing ac­tu­ally on the mon­u­ment as long as there was no vi­o­lence. When word slipped that a cou­ple of the vil­lain’s hench­men would plum­met to their deaths, though, Hitchcock ended up shooting on a set.

great faces, great places

The po­ten­tial for Mount Rush­more, known as the ‘Shrine of Democ­racy’, as a tourist hotspot was ob­vi­ous even while still un­der con­struc­tion. Sou­venir hun­ters would de­scend on the site and pay the work­ers for pieces of drilled or chis­elled stone. In its first year af­ter com­ple­tion, some 400,000 peo­ple flocked to see the in­stant icon not only for the state of South Dakota, but the en­tire coun­try. To­day, it has more than 2 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors.

coolidge plays it cool

“It will be de­cid­edly Amer­i­can in con­cep­tion, in its mag­ni­tude, in its mean­ing and al­to­gether wor­thy of our coun­try. No one can look upon it un­der­stand­ingly with­out re­al­is­ing that it is a pic­ture of hope ful­filled.” So said Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge at the ded­i­ca­tion on 10 Au­gust 1927. If you look closely, you’ll see he wore cow­boy boots for the oc­cas­sion. Coolidge helped se­cure $250,000 of fund­ing, or half the es­ti­mated cost – al­though the fi­nal bill was nearer $1 mil­lion – and was later asked to write the 500-word his­tory of the US in­tended to be carved next to the heads. He died be­fore he could and the idea was scrapped any­way.

a Memo­rial to Match

Since the 1930s, a go­liath carv­ing project has been on­go­ing on a cliff around 15 miles from Mount Rush­more. It will de­pict the war­rior Crazy Horse point­ing into the dis­tance on horse­back, and with an in­tended height of 172 me­tres, will ut­terly dwarf the pres­i­dents – if it’s ever com­pleted. The memo­rial was com­mis­sioned by the Lakota chief Henry Stand­ing Bear, who an­nounced, “My fel­low chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great he­roes too.”

won­der of the world

Each head had re­ceived a ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony com­plete with a re­veal from un­der a large Amer­i­can flag, yet the work con­tin­ued as Bor­glum planned for the pres­i­dents to be de­picted from the waist up. But on 6 March 1941, he died, aged 73. His son Lin­coln took over, but with World War II loom­ing, funds dried up and con­struc­tion ended. Al­though un­fin­ished, Mount Rush­more stands as a won­drous achieve­ment – and, as the gran­ite erodes at around an inch ev­ery 10,000 years, the pres­i­dents will con­tinue their watch for a long time.

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