Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a colossal engineering and artistic project, depicts four U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—in a carved-stone monument also known as the “Shrine of Democracy.” The Rushmore monument remains the largest work of art in the United States if not the world.

Summary of Event

The carving of Mount Rushmore was an undertaking that required the skill of an experienced sculptor, financial support from the U.S. Congress, and the hard (and often dangerous) labor of workers who did the drilling, blasting, and chipping. The project was started in the boom economy of the 1920’s, but it almost died for lack of funds during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The monument as conceived by sculptor Gutzon Borglum was to have a five-hundred-word inscription carved in granite next to the carved depictions of four U.S. presidents and a Hall of Records to house documents from the U.S. National Archives. Borglum’s ideas had to be canceled when the start of World War II shifted national priorities. The monument has remained unchanged since construction ended in 1941. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
National monuments, U.S.;Mount Rushmore
[kw]Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed (Oct. 31, 1941)
[kw]National Memorial Is Completed, Mount Rushmore (Oct. 31, 1941)
[kw]Memorial Is Completed, Mount Rushmore National (Oct. 31, 1941)
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
National monuments, U.S.;Mount Rushmore
[g]North America;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
[g]United States;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
[c]Monuments;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
[c]Engineering;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
[c]Arts;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 31, 1941: Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed[00340]
Borglum, Gutzon
Norbeck, Peter
Robinson, Doane
Coolidge, Calvin
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal

Borglum, whose parents had emigrated from Denmark to the United States in the 1860’s, grew up in Fremont, Nebraska, but left home at age sixteen to study art in California. He became a successful portrait painter and sculptor. In 1904, he received a gold medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair for one of his sculptures. In 1915, he was approached by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to create a memorial to the Confederate Army at Stone Mountain, Georgia. A huge mural was to be carved into a nearly vertical mountain wall, showing an army of Confederate soldiers and their most famous generals.

For the Stone Mountain Stone Mountain, Georgia project, Borglum had to develop new carving techniques, techniques that were far different from those used in a studio. For example, workers learned to cut sticks of dynamite into short pieces, which were then inserted into shallow drill holes and exploded to peel away thin layers of rock. The sculpture of the head of Robert E. Lee was unveiled in 1924 with much fanfare, but disputes between Borglum and the Stone Mountain Monument Association over the eventual size of the project led to its cancellation.

While Borglum was working at Stone Mountain, he received a letter from Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s state historian, to inquire about his availability for a mountain-carving project proposed for the Black Hills. Robinson had a vision that such a carving would provide a unique tourist attraction for the state. When Borglum came for a visit, he told Robinson that the site was perfect for a national monument; the site’s construction costs, Borglum added, would quickly be made up by the income from increased tourist traffic.

Raising funds for the Mount Rushmore project was a slow process. Local businessmen contributed only a few hundred dollars. Robinson, with Peter Norbeck, former governor of South Dakota and now its U.S. senator, urged the state legislature to appropriate $10,000, but they were unsuccessful. The future of the project looked bleak. Then came a lucky break. In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge decided to vacation in the Black Hills. Seeing a great opportunity for national recognition, Norbeck invited Coolidge for a grand dedication ceremony at the proposed site. With the resulting publicity and a booming stock market, individuals and corporations became willing donors. In 1928, Norbeck was able to get an appropriation from Congress for $250,000 in matching funds. It was time for the work to begin.

After studying the exposed granite at Mount Rushmore, Borglum made a scale model showing how the faces of four presidents could be placed. Each face would be about sixty feet tall, located four hundred feet above the valley floor. A carving of such gigantic size had never before been attempted, so some major construction problems had to be solved. To reach that height, it was not feasible to erect scaffolding. Instead, a long stairway was built for the workers to climb to the top, from where they were let down by ropes and harnesses. Suspended far above the valley, they had to operate heavy drills and jackhammers run by compressed air. A machine shop was kept in continuous operation to sharpen drill bits as they became dull. Based on Borglum’s experience at Stone Mountain, dynamite was inserted into small drill holes and then exploded.

A particular difficulty at Mount Rushmore was to transfer the shape of the scale model to the mountain. Since the faces were to be three-dimensional, it was necessary to specify horizontal, vertical, and outward facing distances where granite had to be removed. Borglum solved the problem by inventing an ingenious “pointing machine.” Starting from a fixed point of his scale model on top of Washington’s head, he used a horizontal boom thirty inches long from which a plumb bob was lowered to make contact with any point on the model. The same arrangement was set up on top of the mountain, except the boom there was thirty feet long. With a scale-up factor of one inch on the model to one foot on the mountain, this procedure worked very well and was used eventually for all four faces.

The carving of Washington was completed in about two years. At the dedication ceremony on July 4, 1930, a huge U.S. flag, draped over the carving, was slowly pulled away to reveal the face. Several thousand spectators applauded enthusiastically while newsreel cameras recorded the event for the nation. Work then started on Thomas Jefferson’s head, which was to be located to the right of Washington. Unfortunately, the granite was found to be faulty there, so Borglum had to redesign his model, placing Jefferson on Washington’s left. In 1932, funds ran out and the work had to be shut down. (Crops had failed due to a severe drought and the Depression was at its worst.) After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, money became available through federal unemployment relief, allowing the hiring of a crew of fifty workers. In 1936, Roosevelt came to South Dakota on his reelection campaign and dedicated the Jefferson carving.

Abraham Lincoln’s carving was completed one year later, and the fourth carving, of Theodore Roosevelt, was dedicated on July 2, 1939. Twelve thousand people attended that ceremony at Mount Rushmore, and a national radio audience heard the stirring new song, “God Bless America.” The following year, Borglum added some hollows and wrinkles to the faces, which gave them a remarkable, lifelike appearance.

Borglum died after a short illness in March of 1941. His son, Lincoln Borglum, who had already been involved in the project, completed the unfinished details.


Mount Rushmore has become what Borglum had hoped: a national monument. The four presidents represented the founding of the United States, the expansion of the nation after the Louisiana Purchase, the preservation of the Union during the American Civil War, and the growth of American influence beyond U.S. borders. In 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the monument, President George H. W. Bush rededicated the site, accompanied by an extravaganza of fireworks and famous entertainers.

The American Indian Movement (AIM), which occupied the site in protests in the early 1970’s (the major protest was in 1970), has strongly objected to the monument’s existence, because it celebrates those who banished Native Americans from their lands. AIM considers the monument a desecration of a Black Hills holy site. In 1980, a long-standing lawsuit by the Sioux Nation against the U.S. government resulted in an offer of about $600 million as compensation for Black Hills land and resources that had been illegally seized in 1877. The Sioux Nation refused to accept this money, however, stating that the Black Hills are not for sale. A follow-up lawsuit in 1980 was dismissed in federal court, and the controversy remains unresolved. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
National monuments, U.S.;Mount Rushmore

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Stan. Borglum’s Mountain: A Pictorial History of the Mount Rushmore Memorial. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth, 1983. A collection of photographs with annotations, showing construction in progress and notable visitors to the site.
  • Larner, Jesse. Mount Rushmore: An Icon Reconsidered. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002. A controversial assessment of Mount Rushmore from the point of view of Native Americans who were forcibly displaced from the area in the 1870’s. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • National Park Service. Mount Rushmore National Monument. The official federal government site for the monument.
  • Perrottet, Tony. “Mount Rushmore Makeover.” Smithsonian 37, no. 2 (May, 2006): 78-83. Describes cleaning and maintaining the monument and the appointment of a Native American as National Park Service superintendent for the site.
  • Price, Willadene. Gutzon Borglum, Artist and Patriot. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1961. A laudatory biography of Borglum, describing his numerous sculptures in addition to his masterpiece at Mount Rushmore. Includes sixty historic photographs.
  • Smith, Rex Allen. The Carving of Mount Rushmore. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. A comprehensive description of the construction process as well as the political battles to obtain funding. Photographs and a bibliography. Highly recommended.
  • Taliaferro, John. Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore. New York: Public Affairs, 2002. Mount Rushmore as a patriotic shrine of democracy is contrasted with the desecration of nature as viewed by Native Americans and environmentalists. Describes the 1970 occupation of the site by members of the American Indian Movement.

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