Mount Rushmore: Shrine of democracy
Discover how the United States made a national monument out of a mountainside
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.
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.