• Where is Mount Rushmore located?
• Who carved the structure?
• Why was it sculpted?
• Whose faces are depicted on Mount Rushmore?
• Why were those particular individuals selected?
• When was the monument completed?
• How did Mount Rushmore get its name?
• What unusual source recently donated funds to upgrade the Mount Rushmore grounds?
• What other huge carving is currently underway near Mount Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. The spectacular granite sculpture features the busts of four outstanding Presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Typical of American glorification of bigness and technology, each head is approximately 60 feet tall. According to scale, this would compute to a human of some 465 feet in height! The memorial rises more than 500 feet above the valley.

The concept for Mount Rushmore was conceived in 1923 by Doane Robinson of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Through the concentrated efforts of Senator Peter Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson, the federal government granted approval two years later. In the meantime, organizers had commissioned Gutzon Borglum, the Idaho-born son of immigrant Danes, to design and supervise the massive undertaking. Borglum deemed South Dakota, by virtue of being "in the center of America," a most appropriate locale for "a monument of [such] national significance."

Robinson and other South Dakota officials had envisioned a somewhat different stone sculpture than what appears today. The most popular proposal called for several huge heads be carved on the Needles, a group of distinctive stone spires located elsewhere in the Black Hills. The finished work, according to Robinson, would commemorate Indian and white heroes of the Old West, such as Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Jim Bridger, John Frémont, or George Armstrong Custer. Robinson was not the first to conjure thoughts of a gigantic carving of human form. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the government of France, was unveiled in New York. Even earlier—in 1849—Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had suggested a giant sculpture of Christopher Columbus be chiseled in the Rocky Mountains!

Robinson's scenario did not garner the approval of Borglum. The Needles were unsuitable for such a venture, declared Borglum, because not only were the rocks too fragile to withstand such intensive work, they were disproportionate to the human form, as well. Further, he objected to using mere regional characters for a memorial of such grand scale. Borglum instead presented a rough sketch of two dignitaries—Washington and Lincoln—that he would carve in Mount Rushmore, a site shown to him by state officials after he vetoed the Needles. By the time Borglum actually set to work on Mount Rushmore, his plans had expanded to include Jefferson and Roosevelt.

The selection of what personalities would appear on Mount Rushmore was purely the decision of Borglum. Other figures were suggested from time to time. Eleanor Roosevelt, supported by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, sponsored a bill before Congress to place Susan B. Anthony among the sculptures. Democrats, feeling Republican favor with the faces chosen by Borglum, lobbied for Woodrow Wilson to be included.

Each of the four faces has its unique story. Clearly, the most prominent position is held by Washington, the first figure to be shaped. Washington's eminence on Mount Rushmore is certainly appropriate considering his unmatched contributions to the nation's cataclysmic birth and crucial infancy, especially to the office of the President, a position precariously created, with its vast powers, assuming that Washington would be the first to fill it. It was at Washington's dedication ceremony on July 4, 1930, that Mount Rushmore was dubbed the "Shrine of Democracy."

Jefferson was actually carved twice. Originally placed on Washington's right, a shortage of stone forced Borglum to relocate it to the other side of Washington. What progress had been made on Jefferson was completely erased through blasting. In its new location, the tilt of Jefferson's head had to be shifted to avoid severe cracks in the granite that without the adjustment would have cut conspicuously across his nose. Jefferson is noticeably the most youthful of the four images. He is in his early 30s, when he authored the Declaration of Independence and long before he became President. Thus, Borglum mirrored Jefferson's belief that his accomplishments prior to presidency were the most impacting on the United States.

When it came time to carve Lincoln, Borglum's favorite President, he faced a dilemma. Should Lincoln be portrayed with or without his beard? Borglum decided to show Lincoln, unlike Jefferson, as he appeared during his tenure in the White House.

Whereas Borglum's choices of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were wholeheartedly accepted, the selection of Roosevelt raised eyebrows. Some scholars argued that history had not yet sufficiently judged his presidency (he had been dead for just eight years). Borglum did not waver. No doubt his personal acquaintance with Roosevelt—he considered Roosevelt a friend—figured in Borglum's decision. Where Roosevelt appears today, Borglum had at first carved "1776" beneath which he planned to inscribe an entablature with a brief historical synopsis of the United States. Roosevelt was completed almost nine years to the day after Washington.

What most Americans don't realize about Mount Rushmore is that it was not constructed as a tribute to the four Presidents so much as it was a celebration of basic themes in American history and culture. Borglum's intent is clear in his 1924 report which recommended "the building of this great monument as a memorial to...the continental development of the republic, commemorating in sculptured portraits those dominating personalities who furthered its creation and preservation." Accordingly, Washington's image was intended to represent the founding of the new nation and self-governance (independent of Great Britain). The presence of Jefferson was meant to symbolize America's democratic political philosophy and the first great period of expansion (when the United States purchased Louisiana, including all of what would become South Dakota, from France). Lincoln's portrait was to stand for preservation of the Union (his paramount purpose for fighting the Civil War) and individual freedom for all. And the inclusion of Roosevelt was considered emblematic of America's worldwide responsibilities (brought on by the expansionist era) and conservation of the West.

By mid-1927 the project was underway. President Calvin Coolidge, spending his summer in the Black Hills, was present to launch the work. Riding horseback, sporting cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, Coolidge described the sculpture as "a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty." He concluded the ceremony by handing Borglum a set of drills, whereupon the 60-year-old sculptor was symbolically hoisted up the cliff to begin drilling strategic holes for Washington's face.

Carving was accomplished through controlled blasting with dynamite and laborious drilling using pneumatic hammers. About 90 percent of the granite removed was displaced by explosives. Blasting occurred twice daily—lunch time and late afternoon when, as a rule, the workers were safely distant. The margin of error was unforgiving, for no material could be added to fill mistakes. The workers (mostly local laborers who had no previous experience of the kind) became so skilled at blasting that they could remove rock to within four inches of the finished surface, leaving creation of the more intricate facial features—the twinkle in Washington's eye, the curl of Jefferson's lips, the pinch of Lincoln's brow, and the part in Roosevelt's hair—to hammers and chisels. The finished surface was as smooth as a concrete sidewalk!

Dangerous work it was, but surprisingly, not a single casualty occurred among the nearly 400 workers during the entire construction process! However, several of the crew members would eventually succumb to silicosis (a condition of dust accumulation in the lungs), attributed to their work on Mount Rushmore. Evidence of the workers, such as broken drill bits or scuffed work gloves, can still be found amongst the fragmented rocks below the faces. The discarded items are considered part of the memorial itself, and are therefore strictly off limits to artifact collectors.

The last details of Mount Rushmore were completed in late 1941, seven months after Borglum's death, by his son Lincoln. About six and a half years of actual work went into the 14-year project, which was beset with numerous intermittent lapses due to inclement weather and shortage of funds. The total cost came to just under $1 million (double the initial estimate), most of which was appropriated by Congress during the financially-starved Great Depression of the 1930s. Roughly 14 percent of the money was coaxed from private sources.

The original Mount Rushmore plan called for a Hall of Records to be carved into the rock behind the faces. Started in 1938 but never finished, entombed within would be a capsule history of the United States, including biographies of the four Presidents. In the absence of such archives, Borglum feared confusion on the part of historians and archaeologists thousands of years in the future when the United States as we know it today could conceivably be ancient history. Efforts to complete the Hall of Records were renewed in 1998 by the National Park Service. Somewhat smaller than Borglum's planned chamber, embedded in its floor are 16 porcelain enamel plates engraved with historical information. At no time, however, will the vault be accessible to the general public.

But considering natural erosion, will the four faces still be in existence thousands of years from now? Not to worry, insist geological experts. The granite, highly resistant to wear from wind and water, will erode at the imperceptible rate of less than one inch every 100,000 years!

Since the completion of Mount Rushmore, suggestions have surfaced from time to time for additions to the memorial (Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were among the most popular offerings). Although well-intentioned, none of the proposals have ever been taken seriously. Besides the obvious problem that further construction would compromise the structural integrity of the present faces, adding to Mount Rushmore would make about as much sense as sinking another battleship next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor or painting in a farm boy on Grant Wood's American Gothic! As both a memorial and a masterpiece, Borglum's sculpture is rightfully preserved in its creator's original form.

Mount Rushmore is part of the National Park System and is a popular tourist attraction, hosting in excess of two million visitors each year. A person can look at countless pictures, but none begin to compare to actually standing beneath the magnificent structure and experiencing first-hand its omnipotent presence—it is a breathtaking view. Mount Rushmore's setting amongst the ponderosa pines of the Black Hills National Forest enhances its splendor.

The stunning memorial is a scenic 30-mile drive from Rapid City. Unfortunately, travelers must endure the numerous "tourist traps" that litter the highway under the guise of good ol' American entrepreneurship. The Mount Rushmore grounds, which recently underwent an extensive multi-million dollar renovation, include the Avenue of Flags (the alphabetically-displayed flags of the 50 states plus those of the District of Columbia, and the three territories and two commonwealths overseen by the United States), a world-class museum (complete with two theaters) housed within the visitor center, an amphitheater, the Grand View Terrace, Borglum's studio, a restaurant, and of course, a gift and souvenir shop. For an especially keen view of the faces, visitors can stroll the half-mile Presidential Trail (most of which is actually a boardwalk). It leads to the very foot of the memorial, tracing a route once followed by Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. As you walk, look about carefully and you may see some of the mountain goats that scale the cliffs adjacent to Mount Rushmore!

Mount Rushmore is open all year long. Summer hours stretch from early morning until late at night; off-season hours are more limited. Tourists who remain after dark are treated to a different viewing perspective—each evening, powerful lights illuminate the faces. A modest parking fee was instituted in 1997, but otherwise the memorial charges no admission.


Mount Rushmore is named for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York attorney who visited the Black Hills in the mid-1880s. Apparently, during his trek through the region, the curious lawyer would constantly query his guides, miners David Swanzy and Bill Challis, about the names of certain prominent topographical features. As the story goes, when Rushmore asked about a particular as yet unnamed mountain cliff, someone in his party, who had grown a bit irritated by the counselor's pesky questions, responded on the spur of the moment that the peak Rushmore was pointing to should be called "Rushmore Mountain." Soon thereafter, official government survey maps began identifying the mountain as such. Somehow the name was transposed to "Mount Rushmore" before Gutzon Borglum came along. When Rushmore learned of South Dakota's ambitious plan to sculpt his moniker-mountain, he agreed to donate $5,000 toward the project. The peak was earlier known by various names—Cougar Mountain, Keystone Cliffs, Slaughterhouse Mountain, and Sugarloaf Mountain.

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Gutzon Borglum and Mount Rushmore were not an automatic match. The Black Hills project was first presented to Lorenzo Taft, who declined. When the offer came Borglum's way, he was already busy with another mountain sculpture. In 1916 he had contracted with local Daughters of the Confederacy and Ku Klux Klan members to carve a huge memorial in honor of the Confederate Army into Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia. Almost immediately after work commenced in 1923, Borglum encountered problems. The tempestuous sculptor became frustrated with the inadequate funding, constant confrontations with the board of directors, and the subsequent general lack of progress. It was during this time that Doane Robinson's Black Hills proposal arrived. Hence, the work on Stone Mountain barely underway, South Dakota officials were able to lure Borglum from Georgia to begin his Mount Rushmore masterwork. Upon Borglum's decision to abandon the Stone Mountain carving (technically he was dismissed) and shift his attention to the Black Hills proposition, Georgia officials sought to hire someone else to complete Stone Mountain using the models and drawings of Borglum. Incensed, Borglum destroyed his models and repossessed his blueprints, whereupon Georgia police, arrest warrant in hand, gave chase to Borglum, firing shots at his fleeing vehicle until he crossed the state line! Finally finished in 1969 apart from Borglum's plans, Stone Mountain depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two of his most brilliant generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Other major works of Borglum can be found in Washington, DC (the colossal bust of President Abraham Lincoln, completed in 1908, and a bronze statue of General Philip Sheridan, 1909); Newark, New Jersey (the multi-figured Wars in America, 1927); and San Antonio, Texas (Trail Drivers Memorial, 1940). Borglum also remodeled the Statue of Liberty's torch.

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The most famous Hollywood production showing Mount Rushmore is Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller, North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason. The movie unfolds in classic Hitchcock style, offering a perfect blend of intriguing mystery, keen suspense, and high adventure amidst a sprinkling of subtle humor and budding romance. The real excitement comes at the story's climax when the hero and his girl are forced to elude the bad guys by climbing on the Mount Rushmore faces!

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In 1998, a rather unlikely source donated a hefty sum to help finish the Presidential Trail. Johnston & Murphy, a shoe company based in Nashville, Tennessee, informed Mount Rushmore officials it intended to make a contribution of over $150,000 toward the project. What would prompt a shoe business, geographically remote from western South Dakota, to take such an interest in a mere path for tourists at Mount Rushmore? Johnston & Murphy is known as "Shoemaker to the Presidents" because it has supplied handcrafted footwear to Chief Executives since 1850, when Millard Fillmore was in office (including, most recently, two pairs of size 13s for Bill Clinton). According to a Johnston & Murphy spokesman, the donation to the walkway was a "perfect fit" for the shoe company; a Black Hills area newspaper writer called the sizeable contribution a "giant step" toward completing the trail!

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A second massive stone memorial is currently under construction in the Black Hills—that of Sioux warrior Chief Crazy Horse atop Thunderhead Mountain. He is depicted bare to the waist, arm defiantly outstretched, mounted on a charging horse. Ironically, it is located near the small town of Custer, named after the infamous commander of the 7th Cavalry whose forces were annihilated by an Indian confederation under Crazy Horse during the summer of 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in southeastern Montana. The project's initial work began in 1948 under the direction of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had served for a short while as an assistant to Borglum at Mount Rushmore. As Ziolkowski was set to start preliminary blasting, a swell of opposition arose among South Dakotans to the Crazy Horse Monument being built in such close proximity to Mount Rushmore. Governor George T. Mickelson defended the site selection, sternly reminding the public that the Sioux were "...the people from whom we took this beautiful area—they had it first." Upon Ziolkowski's death in 1982, his wife and some of his children assumed management of the venture. Unlike Mount Rushmore, no government funding has been used. It's only been the last few years that the carving has taken recognizable shape. When completed (the target date is unspecified), the Crazy Horse sculpture will dwarf Mount Rushmore.

South Dakota's 1998 tourism campaign issued billboards, posters, and brochures featuring the stone profiles of Crazy Horse and George Washington facing each other. It was the first time the state photographically paired the two monuments in its advertising. Perhaps the ad carries a symbolic message for chiefs and presidents of all peoples to foster interracial peace and harmony, not just in the United States but the world over.

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During the summer of 2000, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial unfurled the ceremonial American flag used to dedicate all four of the monument's presidential portraits from 1930 through 1939. The huge cotton flag, which measures 39 feet by 67 feet, was machine-sewn by a committee of the Rapid City Women's Club headed by Mrs. C. C. Warren and Mrs. Gutzon Borglum. The flag's 48 stars, each spanning 27 inches across, were stitched in place by the club ladies.

This article is the work and property of Scott Tubbs.  Any use without proper citation is expressly prohibited.