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.
Mount Rushmore, located just north of Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest, was named for the New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore, who traveled to the Black Hills in 1884 to inspect mining claims in the region. When Rushmore asked a local man the name of a nearby mountain, he reportedly replied that it never had a name before, but from now on would be known as Rushmore Peak (later Rushmore Mountain or Mount Rushmore).
A bill introduced in Congress in 1937 proposed that a carving of Susan B. Anthony's head be included among the luminaries at Mount Rushmore, but fell through due to a rider on the existing appropriations bill mandating that federal funds be spent only on those carvings already begun.
Seeking to attract tourism to the Black Hills in the early 1920s, South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson came up with the idea to sculpt “the Needles” (several giant natural granite pillars) into the shape of historic heroes of the West. He suggested Red Cloud, a Sioux chief, as a potential subject. In August 1924, Robinson contacted Gutzon Borglum, an American sculptor of Danish descent who was then working on carving an image of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee into the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Luckily for Robinson, the headstrong Borglum was on the outs with the group that had commissioned the Lee sculpture, and would soon abandon the project. Borglum suggested that the subjects of the South Dakota work be George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as that would attract more national interest. He would later add Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt to the list, in recognition of their contributions to the birth of democracy and the growth of the United States.
During a second visit to the Black Hills in August 1925, Borglum identified Mount Rushmore as the desired site of the sculpture. Even as local Native Americans and environmentalists voiced their opposition to the project, deeming it a desecration of the natural landscape, Robinson worked tirelessly to raise funding for the project, aided by Rapid City Mayor John Boland and Senator Peter Norbeck, among others. After President Calvin Coolidge traveled to the Black Hills for his summer vacation, the sculptor convinced the president to deliver an official dedication speech at Mount Rushmore on August 10, 1927; carving began that October. In 1929, during the last days of his presidency, Coolidge signed legislation appropriating $250,000 in federal funds for the Rushmore project and creating the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission to oversee its completion. Boland was made the president of the commission’s executive committee, though Robinson (to his immense disappointment) was excluded.
To carve the four presidential heads into the face of Mount Rushmore, Borglum utilized new methods involving dynamite and pneumatic hammers to blast through a large amount of rock quickly, in addition to the more traditional tools of drills and chisels. Some 400 workers removed around 450,000 tons of rock from Mount Rushmore, which still remains in a heap near the base of the mountain. Though it was arduous and dangerous work, no lives were lost during the completion of the carved heads.
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October 4, 1927 - October 31, 1941
Mount Rushmore is a project of colossal proportion, colossal ambition and colossal achievement. It involved the efforts of nearly 400 men and women. The duties involved varied greatly from the call boy to drillers to the blacksmith to the housekeepers. Some of the workers at Mount Rushmore were interviewed, and were asked, "What is it you do here?" One of the workers responded and said, "I run a jackhammer." Another worker responded to the same question, " I earn $8.00 a day." However, a third worker said, "I am helping to create a memorial." The third worker had an idea of what they were trying to accomplish.
The workers had to endure conditions that varied from blazing hot to bitter cold and windy. Each day they climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain to punch-in on the time clock. Then 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500 foot face of the mountain in a "bosun chair". Some of the workers admitted being uneasy with heights, but during the Depression, any job was a good job.
The work was exciting, but dangerous. 90% of the mountain was carved using dynamite . The powdermen would cut and set charges of dynamite of specific sizes to remove precise amounts of rock.
Before the dynamite charges could be set off, the workers would have to be cleared from the mountain. Workers in the winch house on top of the mountain would hand crank the winches to raise and lower the drillers. If they went too fast, the drillers in their bosun chairs would be dragged up on their faces. To keep this from happening, young men and boys were hired as call boys. Call boys sat at the edge of the mountain and shout messages back and forth assuring safety. During the 14 years of construction not one fatality occurred.
Dynamite was used until only three to six inches of rock was left to remove to get to the final carving surface. At this point, the drillers and assistant carvers would drill holes into the granite very close together. This was called honeycombing. The closely drilled holes would weaken the granite so it could be removed often by hand.
Visitors to the site were very interested in the honeycombed granite and would often ask, "How can I get a piece of rock like that?" The hoist operator would usually respond, "Oh, I can't give that away. I'm holding onto it for a buddy of mine that works up on the mountain." The visitor would respond, "I'll pay, I'll give you $2.00 for it." The hoist operator's reply was, "Nope, nope, I'd really catch it if I gave away my buddies piece of granite." If the visitors were very determined to get a piece of that granite, they would make another offer. "I'll give you $6.00 for that piece of honeycomb granite." The hoist operator would pretend to pause and think about it... then he would say, "Alright for $6.00 I'm willing to take the heat." The hoist operator would give the visitors the piece of honeycombed granite and take their $6.00. The visitor would leave very pleased with their rare and hard won souvenir. The hoist operator would wait until he was sure the visitors were gone and he would get on the phone to the top of the mountain and say, "Boys send down another one!" Another piece of honeycombed granite was sent down, ready for the next visitor looking for a special souvenir from Mount Rushmore.
After the honeycombing, the workers smoothed the surface of the faces with a hand facer or bumper tool. In this final step, the bumper tool would even up the granite, creating a surface as smooth as a sidewalk.
From 1927 to 1941 the 400 workers at Mount Rushmore were doing more than operating a jackhammer, they were doing more than earning $8.00 a day, they were building a Memorial that people from across the nation and around the world would come to see for generations.
The story of Mount Rushmore National Memorial begins in 1923 when South Dakota historian Doane Robinson envisioned creating an attraction so big it would bring people from all over the world to the Black Hills.
He dreamed of sculptures of Wild West heroes carved into the granite needles of the Black Hills. He contacted sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was carving Stone Mountain in Georgia, and asked him to come to South Dakota to discuss the project. Borglum agreed to meet with Robinson but instead of Wild West heroes, Borglum believed this undertaking needed to be bigger—something with national significance that was timeless and relevant to our country’s history. He wanted a Shrine to Democracy.
Immediately after Borglum agreed to be a part of the project, Robinson and South Dakota’s U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck began to secure federal funding for the project. But they had to get creative. They invited President Calvin Coolidge to come to Custer State Park for a vacation. To keep the president in the state, workers stocked the stream outside his room every night with thousands of trout. The scheme worked. The president found the fishing so good, he decided to extend his stay for two months, just long enough to convince him to fund the carving of Mount Rushmore.
In August of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge officially dedicated the project, and the work on Mount Rushmore began.
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.