A visitor, traveling along route 244 on the western edge of the Badlands of South Dakota, can catch a glimpse of four presidents of the United States through an opening in the tree line.
The presidents’ faces, carved into the granite of the pine-clad Black Hills, are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. This monument constitutes the world’s most gigantic work of sculpture.
Eight hundred million pounds of granite were chiseled and dynamited in carving the features. The faces are so huge that each from brow to chin are as tall as the entire Egypt’s Great Sphinx.
This site was selected because it has changed little since man appeared on earth and has worn down less than the thickness of a finger since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.
Mount Rushmore is named after a young New York attorney baptized Charles Rushmore, who traveled to the area in 1885 to register legal titles to tin mine properties. The dream of a historical monument on the mountain belongs to a gentle but aging scholar/lawyer named Doane Robinson. He is often remembered as the father of the Mount Rushmore memorial.
The important task of raising the necessary finances to sculpture the mountain rested with a levelheaded and skillful U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck and a down-to-earth agricultural marketing dealer John Boland, along with William Williamson, who was a U.S. congressman and attorney.
The designer and creator of Mount Rushmore was Gutzon Borglum, born March 25, 1867, in Ovid, Idaho, to Mormon parents. He studied painting with several teachers in his youth and located to France in 1904, where the sculpture bug bit him. Thee years later, he won a gold medal for a sculpted work at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
In 1907, Borglum secured a contract to create a number of statues for St. John the Divine in New York City. A statue of Civil War General Philip Sheridan was commissioned in 1908, and for the next 20 years, he was doing outstanding work turning out quality sculptural pieces.
The South Dakota group discovered Borglum when they saw his work on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Here, on a vertical 4-acre surface of granite, were three Confederate leaders carved into the mountain surface. Four hundred feet high, it was a monument to the gallantry of the South and a manifest dedication to its leaders — Robert E. Lee, Thomas Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
Borglum was their man to build in South Dakota — he thought big, dreamed big and talked big and was not afraid to tackle any undertaking.
Once Borglum visited Black Hills, selected the carving site, and President Calvin Coolidge had fished, summered and dedicated the project, the hard decisions had to be determined who among the presidents were to find a home in the 600,000 centuries of weathered greystone skin of Mount Rushmore.
The selection of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln was unanimous. Washington had led the Army in the American Revolution, was the first president of the country and had breathed oxygen into the Constitution. Lincoln had saved the country from division over the issue of slavery, authored the Emancipation Proclamation, and was the first assassinated president.
Jefferson was Borglum’s idea. While not unanimous, it was finally agreed that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and with the Louisiana Purchase (of which the Black Hills were a part), he had more than doubled the size of the nation.
The selection committee did argue over the fourth selection — Theodore Roosevelt. Despite how good of a president he might have been, he did not fit the memorial’s theme of “the foundation, expansion and preservation of the United States.” After considerable debate and arm-twisting “Teddy” was selected because of his building of the Panama Canal.
Borglum’s argument was that the “Big Ditch” completed the dream of Christopher Columbus. It opened the way to the East and joined the waters of the east and west seas. This contributed to “American commercial expansion,” he argued. A stronger case would suggest that Roosevelt was a devoted naturalist and wilderness enthusiast and had a remarkable conservation record.
Visitors today look in awe of the mountain and ask, “why did they stop at four?”
Others question Teddy Roosevelt’s selection and suggest Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, John Marshall, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and the list goes on.
Doing the work
The men who did the actual work of carving Rushmore were children of the older tin and gold mining days from the Keystone district. They worked hard, played even harder and were little disposed to small talk. They traveled to the mountain with their lunch pail in hand listening to WNAX radio for the weather, sports and the yodeling of cowboy George German.
As soon as the men arrived for work at 7 a.m. in the warm months and 7:30 a.m. in the colder parts of the year, big air compressors began to pound, jackhammer chattered, dynamite charges were placed in one-inch holes and carvers and drillers were hung on the mountain slope to begin another day’s work. The task was tedious, muscular, dirty and usually in an environment that was too hot or too cold.
At 4 p.m. when the whistle blew, the workers were hoisted to the lip of the mountain and work was done for the day. The men were “blown off,” tools stored, machinery turned-off, and car radios blared as the men headed home, mostly to the town of Keystone.
Fourteen years later
As the summer of 1941 ebbed away, the workers had been on the mountain for 14 years. Borglum was dead, the Depression Era was history, money was in short supply, and war clouds hung heavy over the world. Work was about over in western South Dakota. There was some finishing work to be done to Roosevelt’s face, Lincoln’s head and Washington’s lapel. There were still some small items, according to the original plan of Oct. 4, 1927, that needed attention. But the major work was completed.
The men who worked on Mount Rushmore accomplished something no one else in the world had done. They had created a Shrine of Democracy for the world to view. At 4 p.m. Oct. 31, 1941, the mountain heard the chatter of work for the last time. That same night, the American destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Atlantic, and five weeks later Pearl Harbor was bombed by the forces of Japan in the Pacific.
The men who fabricated Mount Rushmore were soon working in defense plants, mines, farms or marching off to war. The monument of four presidents that they left behind is what visitors see today piercing through the pine trees of the Black Hills, the world’s largest piece of sculpture — Mount Rushmore!
That’s your history!
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