“A monument’s dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated…Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.” –Gutzon Borglum
Who shall be placed there, carved high? Whom would you select to be monuments to American democracy? The original proposal for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was for a monument to the American West, with figures such as Chief Red Cloud, Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum expanded that vision to one more truly national in breadth. He sought to “create an eternal reminder of the birth, growth, preservation and development of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of individual liberty,” according to the park guide.
Ironically, the faces chosen for the monument dedicated to democracy were not selected through surveys, committee or focus groups but by artist Borglum. He alone, maybe focusing on the aspect of individual liberty, made the decision to blast and sculpt the 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln onto Mount Rushmore.
According to a park ranger, the most controversial choice was Theodore Roosevelt not only because he had died a mere eight years before and his legacy was unknown but also because he was a close friend of Borglum. The artist was not deterred and stuck with his four chosen presidents.
Construction on the national memorial began in 1927, and the presidents’ faces were completed between 1934 and 1939.
Jefferson was originally placed to Washington’s right, but the granite was not conducive to carving, and the work that was done was blasted off the mountain, and Jefferson was moved to Washington’s left. An entablature was begun to Lincoln’s left but also had to be blasted off due to the quality of the granite in that location.
Jefferson had to be adjusted so as not to have a crack through his nose and risking his nose later tumbling down the mountain. Lincoln was eventually sculpted with his well-known beard although some lobbied for the clean-shaven Lincoln. Roosevelt’s glasses provided a challenge, but were successfully and artfully conveyed.
The explosions were so precise that 90 percent of the 450,000 tons of rock was removed by blasting it off the mountain. Workers daily climbed the 700 steps to the top of Mount Rushmore to perform their jobs, many hanging off the side of the mountain in bosun chairs while using jackhammers and other tools to remove and sculpt the granite.
As a worker on the memorial stated in a video in the Mount Rushmore Exhibit Hall, everyone was concerned about safety and even though some of the actions clearly would not comply with today’s OSHA regulations, none of the close to 400 workers were lost during the 14 years of work on Mt. Rushmore.
Borglum’s plan did not end with the four chosen figures of democracy and liberty. Wanting to avoid the monument becoming a mysterious ruin to future generations, Borglum wanted to explain the monument to those who would be viewing it thousands of years from now.
He envisioned both a carved inscription of the history of the country on the face of the mountain and a hall of records behind the presidents that would house documents and artifacts of the United States. In 1998 Borglum’s dream was partially met when 16 enameled educational panels were entombed in the hall of records.
The park grounds contain an information center, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center — Lincoln is Gutzon Borglum’s son, named after President Abraham Lincoln. He also worked on Mount Rushmore both before and after his father’s death — the Grand View Terrace, the Presidential Trail and gift shops, bookstores and refreshment stands.
In addition, the second sculptor’s studio still stands on the grounds and houses the 1:12 (one inch equals one foot on the mountain) model used for Mount Rushmore.
According to a park ranger, visitors would frequent the first sculptor’s studio, and the constant questions and interruptions by visitors was not to Borglum’s liking, so the second studio was built to allow visitors to flock to the first studio and leave Borglum to his work in the second studio. Only the fireplace of the first studio remains.
Finally, why is it called Mount Rushmore?
According to the park ranger and the park’s website, “Mount Rushmore is named after New York City attorney Charles E. Rushmore, who came to the Black Hills in 1884-1885 to check legal titles on properties. On returning to Pine Camp, he asked Bill Challis the name of this mountain. Bill replied, ‘Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.’”
The information center and the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center are open daily except Dec. 25, when the buildings are closed but the grounds remain open.