Deconstructing History: Mount Rushmore

The southeastern face of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest is the site of four gigantic carved sculptures depicting the faces of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Led by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, work on the project began in 1927 and was finally completed in 1941. Over that time period, some 400 workers erected the sculpture under dangerous conditions, removing a total of 450,000 tons of rock in order to create the enormous carved heads, each of which reached a height of 60 feet (18 meters). In sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s original design, the four presidents were meant to be represented from the waist up, but insufficient funding brought the carving to a halt after completion of their faces. Known as the “Shrine of Democracy,” Mount Rushmore welcomes upwards of 2 million visitors every year, and is one of America’s most popular tourist attractions.

Finding a Sculptor

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

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.

The Carving Process

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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