The Making of Mount Rushmore
The 70th anniversary of the completion of the South Dakota monument prompts a look back at what it took to create it
- By Megan Gambino
- Smithsonian.com, October 31, 2011
(Underwood & Underwood / Corbis)
In the 1920s, despite the area’s atrocious roads, a fair number of adventurous travelers were visiting South Dakota’s Black Hills. But Doane Robinson, the official historian for the state, had an idea to lure more tourists to the pine-covered mountain range that rises from the plains, taking to its rather atrocious roads. But Robinson wanted to entice more visitors to South Dakota, which had been named a state 30 years prior.
“Tourists soon get fed up on scenery unless it has something of special interest connected with it to make it impressive,” he said. He envisioned heroes of the American West—Red Cloud, Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, among others—carved into the granite “needles,” named for their pointy appearance, near Harney Peak, the state’s tallest mountain.
In August 1924, Robinson wrote to Gutzon Borglum, an ambitious sculptor who was already carving on a granite cliff face in Georgia. “He knew that Borglum would have the skills and knowledge to get something like this done,” says Amy Bracewell, park historian at Mount Rushmore.
Borglum, a son of Danish immigrants, was born in Idaho, spent his childhood in Nebraska and later studied art in California, Paris (with Auguste Rodin) and London. After returning to the United States, Borglum entered a gold-medal-winning sculpture into the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. He sculpted figures inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and a head of Lincoln that was prominently displayed by Theodore Roosevelt in the White House and, for many years, in the Capitol Rotunda. But when Robinson wrote to Borglum he was working on his largest project yet—a bas-relief of Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Borglum had managed to work out the technical difficulties of working on a sheer face of a mountain, in a massive scale, and was well into carving a figure of Robert E. Lee, when Robinson approached him about the assignment out West. At the time, tension was rising between Borglum and the Stone Mountain Monumental Association because while the sculptor sought to carve a whole army into the cliff, the association only had the funds for the frieze’s centerpiece of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and possibly a few other mounted generals.
In September 1924, just five months before the association fired him, Borglum made his first trip to South Dakota. He was eager to start anew in the Black Hills. “I want the vindication it would give me,” he told Robinson.