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

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

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.


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