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Ninety percent of Mount Rushmore was carved using dynamite. (Paul A. Souders / Corbis)

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

Borglum’s Vision

Mount Rushmore
(National Archives and Records Administration)
Once Borglum saw the impressive mountain he had to work with, he started to rethink Robinson’s idea of featuring Western figures. It might be too regional, he thought, and he wanted the monument to be national in scope. “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,” said Borglum, in 1927.

As the sculptor, Borglum, with Robinson’s support, had the artistic freedom to carve what he saw fit. He wanted Mount Rushmore to represent the first 150 years of the nation’s history, and so decided to carve portraits of four key presidents into the granite.

“Washington represents the foundation of the country, the creation of the United States. Jefferson reflects the expansion of the country with the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the country in size and seeing that vision of what the country could be; Lincoln, the preservation of the country through the Civil War; and Roosevelt, the development of the country as a world power leading up into the 20th century,” says Bracewell.

As Rex Alan Smith writes in The Carving of Mount Rushmore, Borglum “thought big and dreamed big and talked big.” So, it was no surprise that he wanted the heads of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore to be big. Each visage is six stories tall. Had it not been for a band of impenetrable mica schist lower in the mountain, and time restraints, Borglum and his crew of carvers would have hewn down to the presidents’ waists. The wide-eyed sculptor had also envisioned an entablature 120 feet high and 80 feet wide, in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase, to the right of the presidents, on which a brief history of the United States would be etched. He even launched a contest, calling for Americans to submit inscriptions. He planned for a grand staircase, built from the rubble blasted from the mountain, to climb from the base to a Hall of Records, positioned behind the presidents’ heads. A cavernous rotunda, the hall would hold the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, information about the four presidents, a record of American history and an explanation for why Mount Rushmore was built.

Borglum was of the mindset that American art should be “…built into, cut into, the crust of this earth so that those records would have to melt or by wind be worn to dust before the record…could, as Lincoln said, ‘perish from the earth.’” When he carved his presidential portraits into the stable granite of Mount Rushmore, he fully intended for the memorial to endure, like Stonehenge, long past people’s understanding of it.

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