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Katie Mohar


The Story Behind Mount Rushmore

Sep 23

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Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.

Mount Rushmore
Photo by Katie Mohar

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the reason why every South Dakota License plate carries the tag line: “Great Faces. Great Places.” Recently, I visited Mount Rushmore, becoming one of the site’s two million annual visitors. It was an inspiring experience that I recommend for families and school groups. Today, I’ll briefly share the story behind Mount Rushmore.

Like many historic places, Mount Rushmore is not without controversy. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux did not receive proper compensation for land including Mount Rushmore in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. Today, the National Park Service operates Mount Rushmore. In 2004, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, Gerard Baker, was appointed park superintendent. During his tenure, Baker expanded the park’s focus to include more American Indian history.

Patience and resilience are two lessons kids will encounter by learning the story behind Mount Rushmore and visiting the park’s onsite museums. These life lessons emerge from the story of how some 400 workers – inspired by one man’s big idea and another man’s artistic genius – came to life.

Chronology of the Story Behind Mount Rushmore

1923 – South Dakota State Historian Doane Robinson comes up with the idea of an enormous sculpture featuring notable figures to enhance the state economy via tourism beyond agriculture.

1924 – Robinson invites renowned sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to the Black Hills. Borglum expresses excitement to work on the project and later suggests the idea of sculpting U.S. presidents.

1927 – First drilling, commemorated by an on-site address by President Calvin Coolidge.

1933 – National Park Service receives jurisdiction over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial project.

1940 – Congress approves the final appropriation of funds to complete the sculpture.

Mount Rushmore’s Four Faces

Four American presidents, carved in granite, gaze out on the American West. Each president represents a different aspect of America’s story. The lead sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, who was famous for his artistic skills in the 1920s and 30s.

Modern children may not realize that Borglum’s public sculptures can be found in many places outside of the Black Hills. Borglum raised sculptures in: Washington, D.C., New York, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Connecticut – as well as in Poland, France, Cuba and Denmark.

“The size of each president’s head is symbolic of the ‘importance of the events commemorated.'”

– Gutzon Borglum

Each president’s head is 60 feet high, double the 30-foot-high head of the Spinx of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the world. The Statue of Liberty in New York City is 305 feet from the pedestal floor to the torch. In contrast, the Mount Rushmore figures are scaled to the height of a person 465 feet tall.

George Washington’s face is most prominent on the sculpture. He represents America’s birth. Washington was unanimously elected as America’s first president in 1789.

“I deliberately carved the head in an upright position without the slightest tilting forward or backward, or to either side, to fix upon the mind of the observer the upright character of the man.”

– Gutzon Borglum

Thomas Jefferson appears next, representing America’s growth stage. America’s third president spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled America’s landmass. Borglum rendered Jefferson in granite as he looked at age 33, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Theodore Roosevelt represents America’s developmental stage. Roosevelt was influential in building the Panama Canal and the peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War. He spent time as a rancher in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, modern day North Dakota. Over 234 million acres of land were set aside for conservation during his presidency. National parks and monuments were also established.

Abraham Lincoln appears last, representing America’s preservation. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing slaves in rebellion states. He also pushed Congress to approve the 13th Amendment which, when ratified after his assassination, abolished slavery in the United States.

These presidents, being human, also had flaws. Mount Rushmore doesn’t call us to idolize these political leaders – but rather to remember America’s history with which they are deeply entwined.

Patience in Building Mount Rushmore

It took nearly 400 workers a total of 14 years to complete the Mount Rushmore sculpture. When your family visits, be sure to take the Sculptor’s Studio Tour. It’s an engaging ranger talk hosted in Borglum’s original sculpting studios, midway down the mountain. Listening to the park ranger, kids learn about the meticulous and dangerous process by which workers rendered the presidents’ faces on the mountain.

The Sculptor’s Studio also holds the original scale model, allowing kids to visualize the intricate planning that went into creating Mount Rushmore. Borglum didn’t just head out to the rock with a pile of dynamite and blast away. He planned everything down to the inch, making an enormous scale model (see photo below). One inch on the model equates to one foot on the monument. Young, future engineers may find Borglum’s methods intriguing.

Mount Rushmore Sculptor's Studio
On left: Swing hoist used by workers. On right: Borglum’s scale model of Mount Rushmore.
Photo by Katie Mohar

Borglum’s team was unable to work during the winter, which contributed to the overall process taking 14 years. On working days, they had to allow themselves time to climb 700 treacherous steps so that they could begin working on the sculpture at 7:30 a.m. sharp. For the rest of the day, workers maneuvered heavy blasting equipment and drills while strapped into swing seats. This work required patience and persistence – all while swinging over a rocky chasm!

Amazingly, no one died while sculpting Mount Rushmore. This is due to careful preplanning and the patient yet steady work of hundreds of talented workers over 14 years.

Resilience in Finalizing Mount Rushmore

Life rarely goes as planned, even with careful planning. When it comes to big goals, including sculpting a 465-foot-high monument on a mountain face, a simple mistake or oversight means starting over. The story behind Mount Rushmore teaches kids to be flexible in the face of obstacles. Sometimes life’s plans go so wrong that we need to start over with a fresh slab of granite, no matter how disappointing this may be. In the end, our resilience will pay off.

Granite can be inconsistent and irregular. Borglum sometimes had to alter plans. While sculpting Jefferson’s nose, a large crack appeared due to a section of low-quality granite that was resistant to carving. There was no remedy other than to blast away the face and start fresh.

Originally, Washington’s face was planned for the center of the monument. Borglum pivoted and moved Jefferson to the opposite side of Washington, on a fresh slab of granite. This meant that Roosevelt’s and Lincoln’s positions also needed to change. It also meant that Borglum had to create a brand-new scale model for the entire sculpture (as shown in the Sculptor’s Studio photo above).

“Probably a third of the time spent on Jefferson has been spent on refitting it or relocating it within the mountain itself, so that the nose, in particular, would not have a crack running through it. I have no intention of leaving a head on that mountain that in the course of 500 or 5,000 years will be without a nose.”

– Gutzon Borglum

Mount Rushmore’s history can help kids see the benefit of resilience in the face of life’s disappointments, mistakes and surprises.

To Learn More…

When planning your trip to Mount Rushmore, allow time to enjoy the Avenue of Flags, visitor center and the evening lighting ceremony. You may also want to hike the “Presidential Trail,” which affords a unique view of the sculpture. Beware: this trail includes 422 steps!

While I’ve only mentioned sculptor Gutzon Borglum by name thus far, many more talented artists worked alongside him including: Luigi Del Bianco, Hugo Villa, Jim LaRue and Borglum’s son, Lincoln Borglum. Their artistic vision would never have materialized without the careful craftsmanship of hundreds more workers. To learn more, you’ll need to visit Mount Rushmore!