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

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

Finding a Sculptor

Gutzon Borglum carving
(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.

Selecting the Mountain

Mount Rushmore before carving
(National Park Service)
When Borglum was in South Dakota, Robinson took him to see the “needles.” But the sculptor felt that the granite spires were too spindly to carve. Even if he could feasibly do it, Borglum told Robinson, “Figures on those granite spikes would only look like misplaced totem poles. We will have to look farther.”

A year later, in 1925, Borglum scouted the area surrounding Harney Peak for a mountain or piece of granite that was solid enough to hold a figure. “As an artist, he was very interested in light and making sure that the morning sunrise hit the face of the granite,” says Bracewell. A state forester led Borglum on horseback to three mountains he thought would be appropriate—Old Baldy, Sugarloaf and finally Mount Rushmore.

From all accounts, it seems that Borglum fell for Mount Rushmore at first sight. Its 400-foot high and 500-foot wide east-facing wall would serve as the perfect carving block, according to the sculptor. Hours after he laid eyes on it, Borglum told the Rapid City Journal that there was “no piece of granite comparable to it in the United States.”

The following day, Borglum and a few others climbed Mount Rushmore, named after Charles Rushmore, an attorney who assessed mining claims in the area in the 1880s. Some members of the press and officials in Rapid City, the nearest population center about 25 miles northeast, were disappointed with Borglum’s selection, since it was in such a remote, roadless area of the state. But geologists approved. “They assured the sculptor that the ancient granite was extremely hard, and incredibly durable, and that the fissures were probably only skin deep,” wrote Gutzon’s son Lincoln Borglum and June Culp Zeitner in the 1976 book Borglum’s Unfinished Dream: Mount Rushmore.

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.

The Carving Process

Mount Rushmore carving process
(National Park Service)
Mount Rushmore was part of federal land, and with the help of Robinson and other heavyweight supporters, including Rapid City mayor John Boland, South Dakota Congressman William Williamson and Senator Peter Norbeck, Borglum was able to get the mountain set aside for his project. The actual carving, funded at first by individuals and community organizations, began in 1927.

At Congressman Williamson’s urging, President Coolidge spent the summer of 1927 in the Black Hills. Impressed by Borglum’s vision, he invited the sculptor back to Washington, D.C., to discuss federal funding. By 1929, the Mount Rushmore bill was passed, ensuring that the government would provide up to $250,000, or half of the estimated cost of the memorial, by matching private donations. Over the 14 years spent constructing the memorial, funding was always an issue. In the end, the project cost nearly $1 million, about 85 percent of which came, according to Bracewell, from federal funds.

About 30 men at any given time, and 400 in total, worked on the monument, in a variety of capacities. Blacksmiths forged tools and drill bits. Tramway operators oversaw the shuttling of equipment from the base of the mountain to the work zone. There were drillers and carvers strapped into bosun chairs, and men who, by hand, worked the winches that lowered them. Call boys, positioned to see both the skilled laborers and the winch houses barked instructions to the winch operators. And, powder men cut sticks of dynamite to certain lengths and placed them in holes to blast out sections of the granite.

Ninety percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite. “The workers were so skilled, knowing how much dynamite you needed to use to blast off rock, that they were able to get within about three to five inches of the final faces,” says Bracewell.

Borglum had used a massive projector at night to cast his image of Confederate leaders onto Stone Mountain; his assistant traced the shape with white paint. But at Mount Rushmore, Borglum mounted a flat-panel protractor on each of the presidents’ heads with a large boom and a plumb bomb dangling from the boom. He had a similar device on a model. “His crew took thousands of measurements on the model and then went up to the mountain and translated it times 12 to recreate those measurements on the mountain,” says Bracewell. In red paint, they marked off certain facial features, what needed to be carved and how deep. To remove the remaining three to five inches of granite, the carvers used a honeycomb method. They pounded small holes into the stone using jackhammers and with a hammer and chisel broke off the honeycomb pieces. “They would just kind of pop off because the holes were close together,” says Bracewell. Then, the crew used a bumper tool with a rotating, multi-diamond drill bit head to buff the presidents’ skin smooth. When all was said and done, 800 million pounds of rock had been removed.

The process was amazingly successful, given the complexity of the task. No one died in the making of the monument. But the workers certainly hit some snags along the way. Thomas Jefferson was meant to be to the left of George Washington, but when the crew started carving there, they realized the rock on that side was not well suited. They blasted him off and put him to the right of Washington instead. The shift ended up moving Abraham Lincoln’s head into the area intended for the entablature, which was never added. Similarly, to find solid rock from which to carve Theodore Roosevelt, the workers had to plunge 80 feet back from the original face of the mountain.

Gutzon Borglum’s death, at age 73, on March 6, 1941, was the beginning of the end for the making of the monument. His son Lincoln took over in leading the project. But as the United States prepared for World War II, and federal funds were needed elsewhere, Congress shut down the construction of Mount Rushmore and declared the monument complete, as is, on October 31, 1941.

Controversy at the Memorial

Mount Rushmore protest and Crazy Horse
(Blaine Harrington III / Corbis; Maggie Steber / National Geographic Society / Corbis)
That year, nearly 400,000 people visited Borglum’s “shrine of democracy.” To put that success in perspective, according to National Park Service records, that same year around the same number visited the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

Yet, for all its admirers, Mount Rushmore had, and continues to have, its critics. When Robinson first spoke in the 1920s of carving into the Black Hills, environmentalists were outraged. Why, they thought, did men have to mar the natural beauty of a mountain? Perhaps the strongest opposition has come from American Indians. Many local Lakota see Mount Rushmore as a desecration of their sacred homeland. To add insult to injury, the carving, of four white men, is a reminder of the affliction the Lakota faced.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie, hashed out between the United States and the Lakota in 1868, declared the Black Hills to be Lakota land. But, in the 1870s, at the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant, a small army led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer occupied the region. Gold was struck, and a rush of panhandlers began to illegally settle the area. The Great Sioux War erupted in 1876, and by 1877, an act of Congress forced the defeated Lakota to surrender their land.

In the 1930s, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear took one stance. He hired a sculptor by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski to carve the face of Crazy Horse, the legendary Lakota leader, in a cliff just 15 miles away. Wrapped in its own controversy, the construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial, which eclipses Mount Rushmore in size, continues to this day. The memorial has refused government grants and is funded by visitors and private donors.

Meanwhile, Gerard Baker, Mount Rushmore’s first American Indian superintendent, from 2004 to 2010, took another. Under his leadership, park rangers began to include the Lakota perspective in the telling of Mount Rushmore’s history. “There will probably always be the ongoing debate of the desecration of the ancestral homeland for the American Indians,” says Bracewell. “But we hope that with conversations, and by openly acknowledging and talking about it, we can help heal the divide a little bit.”

Mount Rushmore Today and into the Future

Mount Rushmore
(Library of Congress)
At its going rate, Mount Rushmore erodes only one inch every 10,000 years. Borglum was the work’s sculptor and its first conservator. He and his crew sealed natural cracks in the mountain with a mixture of linseed oil and granite dust. Today, a repair crew on staff at Mount Rushmore patches cracks with a silicone-based caulking material on an annual basis.

Should a manmade or natural disaster ever significantly damage the monument, the park has a 3-D digital scan of the entire mountain, within centimeter accuracy of details, which could be used to recreate it. The data was collected during a two-week laser-scanning project the park administered in 2010, with help from specialists from the Kacyra Family Foundation and Historic Scotland, an agency of the Scottish government charged with protecting historic sites. “The sky is the limit on what kind of visitor programming we can do with this data,” says Bracewell. Soon, the memorial will be able to create virtual fly-bys and trips to the unfinished hall of records and the top of the mountain. Over two million tourists visit Mount Rushmore every year, but, with new tools, such as holographic images for use in classrooms, the National Park Service will be able to share the experience of the memorial with many more.

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