How and Why Was Mount Rushmore Built? U.S. Presidents, History and Art

How and Why Was Mount Rushmore Built? U.S. Presidents, History and Art
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Gutzon Broglum

Gutzon Broglum (1867-1941) was a hardheaded man. As a teen, he ran away from his Danish parents, leaving Idaho to explore his art. He studied in San Francisco and eventually made his way to France, England and Spain. His love for drawing developed into a passion for sculpture. He liked faces, especially carving faces. Many people do not know his name, but he was the fire behind creating Mount Rushmore.

Wonders of the World

You may have heard of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” including such places as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes and more. But one of the great wonders is in the United States in an unlikely place, South Dakota—in the Black Hills.

History of the Black Hills

The first Native Americans to live in this South Dakota region was a tribe that some tribes called, Nadouessioux, which means “enemies.” Others called them “Sioux.” The Sioux had a name for the high mountains and hills covered in black pine: paha sapa, meaning, “hills of black.” The Sioux felt such a spirit connection to this place that they believed it was sacred, and for that reason, they didn’t live, hunt or fish there. In 1868, a United States treaty was signed at Fort Laramie where the Black Hills were recognized as part of the Great Sioux Reservation—their own private lands.

The first white men to visit—somewhere around 1743—respected the way the Sioux felt and didn’t go into the Black Hills. Later, others did not feel that way and miners, soldiers and trappers violated the sacred ground. In 1874, the U.S. Army sent troops to investigate the area for a potential fort. General George A. Custer led the expedition and with the aid of miners, sought gold. As soon as they reported gold in the area, by 1875, 10,000 white people rushed in and almost overnight, towns such as Deadwood sprang up.

Battles were fought—with the great warrior, Sitting Bull in the lead—as miners moved into Sioux hunting grounds. The Army was told to engage and a campaign to drive out the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Bighorn River was thrown together. Custer’s detachment (the Seventh Cavalry) was annihilated and this combat is referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand.” the battles continued until the Sioux, including the Oglala Sioux, under Crazy Horse’s command, were defeated and forced onto reservations. To this day, ownership of the Black Hills is in legal dispute and the Sioux will not take money for it, with the firm belief that the land is still theirs.

A Monumental Proposal

The goldmines were exhausted and abandoned by the time South Dakota became a state in 1889. At the end of World War I in 1918, businesses began growing and ranches and farms appeared. Doane Robinson was head of the South Dakota Historical Society and sought for ways to bring more tourists into the state. He read about a sculptor who was carving Civil War heroes in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He decided to invite Gutzon Borglum to look over the area to see if he could do something similar.

Borglum arrived with his 12-year old son, Lincoln, and they set about on horseback and on foot to explore the rock formations when the sculptor in Borglum found what he said was, “a garden of the gods.” Excited, Robinson set about getting funding. Little did he know, that fundraising would continue for years through lulls, major support from a President, the efforts of two memorial associations and, finally, federal money to round things out.

A Task of Great Proportion

Just some of the logistics it took to carve faces into a mountain, requiring these tools:

  • A generator for electricity
  • Power lines three miles long
  • Jackhammers, heavy duty tools and a blacksmith shop to create them
  • A cookhouse and bunkhouses for the workers
  • Cement, lumber and machinery that was carried uphill
  • A long wooden staircase to aid the climb
  • Dynamite
  • Pointers and weights
  • A winch
  • Bosun’s chairs (a sling-like swing), scaffolding and more

Workers were lowered down the face of the mountain, often working 1,000 feet or 300 meters above the ground. It made several workers afraid but the trick was not looking down, down, down.

Moving Rock

Holes were drilled into the rock about six inches apart and three to four feet deep. After the drills had pierced the marked area, the “powder monkeys” came to place sticks of dynamite into the holes. Once the dust cleared from the explosion, tons of stone were blown from the face of the mountain. Drilling and blasting all summer and fall of 1927, and President Washington’s head was beginning to take shape.

Four Faces

One of the largest sculptures in the world, the faces of four United States Presidents are carved into the mountain: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

The cliff site is more than 1,000 feet wide. Each of Washington’s eyes is 11 feet across, and his mouth is 18 feet wide. From the top of his head to the chin, it is 60 feet of carved rock—what a six-story building would be.

The Dream Continued

From 1934 to 35, Jefferson’s head took shape while others blasted away rock from Lincoln’s head and, still others, smoothed out Washington’s face. Borglum used red paint to mark areas to be cut while he compared the composition to a smaller five-foot high model. The prototype was one-twelfth the size of the mountain and controlled by a pointer he designed which hung by weights from the top of the head. A much larger pointer was fixed to the top of the mountain and the measurements from the small model were created relative to the big mountain—only multiplied by 12. Ingenious!

Time, Money and Employment

It took 14 years and cost $990,000 dollars and the work of hundreds of men to pull it off. The 137 workers were glad to have jobs when they started during the Great Depression and the drillers were paid 75 cents an hour; the powder monkeys got a $1 an hour and the carvers, $1.25. Only two workers were seriously injured and no one died.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Lincoln Borglum, the sculptor’s son, became the first superintendent of the memorial. The 12-year old boy had grown up with the project and held that post until 1944, when it became a National Park Service project.

Today, Mount Rushmore is open every day except Christmas and there is no charge to see it (aside from paying for parking). It’s quite a place with a path called the Avenue of Flags leading up to the rock wall: one for every state in the Union plus territories and districts.

About 3 million visitors see Mount Rushmore every year. This is a sight that you won’t soon forget—a symbol of American freedom and ingenuity.

Fun Facts

  • Thomas Jefferson’s head was moved because the rock on the right side of George Washington was weak
  • Borglum wanted the presidents to be shown to the waist, but the project ran out of money many times
  • George Washington’s nose is 21 feet or 6 meters long
  • At one point, they considered including Susan B. Anthony, but Congress wouldn’t approve the money for her
  • Before winter set in, the workers had to hurry and installed signage around the site that said, “Rush more!”