South Dakota: Mount Rushmore Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This monument memorializes critical events in the shaping of United States history: the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the preservation of the Union, and the building of the Panama Canal.

Site Office

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

P.O. Box 268

Keystone, SD 57751

ph.: (605) 574-2523

Web sites: www.nps.gov/moru; www.travelsd.com/rushmore/index.htm

The Black Hills’ popularity as a tourist destination has combined with the attraction of the Mount Rushmore Memorial to produce an ever-increasing number of visitors who enjoy the natural beauty of the Black Hills and the enshrining of American history. The heads of four United States presidents, each sixty feet high, are carved into the side of the mountain. Each was finished and dedicated at a different time. The National Park Service administers Mount Rushmore and provides guided tours and lectures. Over the years the complex has expanded to include several features: a visitors’ center, amphitheater, concession building and staff dormitory, and parking lot.

The Decision to Build

Doane Robinson, a South Dakota historian, conceived the idea of commemorating important events in South Dakota history by carving a gigantic sculpture in the Black Hills featuring Native American tribal leaders and heroes of the old West. In 1923 he suggested this idea to Senator Peter Norbeck as a tourist attraction to bring more people into the Black Hills. These two were instrumental in appealing first to the people of South Dakota for popular support and then to Congress. A federal congressional act authorized the South Dakota state legislature to undertake the memorial project in 1925, but work did not actually begin until 1927 when private contributions were solicited. Federal money became available for the work when a congressional bill was passed in 1929 appropriating $250,000 to be matched on a fifty-fifty basis by private contributions. The first contributors were the three railroads serving the state of South Dakota, Homestake Mine in the Black Hills, and private contributors including Charles Rushmore, a lawyer in New York State. Rushmore had visited the Black Hills around 1883 in connection with checking mining claims. When he first saw the mountain that would bear his name, he asked what it was called. The reply was that it had no name but since he had asked, it could be named for him. The name was not officially recognized by the United States Board of Geographic Names, however, until 1930.

Raising money for the project was always a problem, but fund-raising received a boost in 1927 with the publicity generated by President Calvin Coolidge’s summer vacation spent near Mount Rushmore in Custer State Park. He had been persuaded to visit the area by South Dakotans who extolled the region’s beauties and who wanted him to visit Mount Rushmore to promote it. At that time, there was only a wagon trail leading from the town of Keystone to the mountain. Visitors had to walk in or be carried in by mule. President Coolidge arrived at the site to celebrate the first drilling of stone. The sculptor Gutzon Borglum dramatized the event by accepting drills from the president and then lowering himself over the stone face by rope to drill the first point for the face of Washington. Borglum then presented one of the drills to the president to conclude the ceremony. By 1930, when the head of George Washington was dedicated, a road had been built.

Geologically, Mount Rushmore is among the oldest outcroppings in the world. Uncovered by erosion, it is the most exposed part of a granite spine which runs through that part of the Black Hills. This particular spot was chosen because the granite is of a finer texture and therefore more suitable for carving. There are fewer cracks in the stone face, which makes it less subject to weathering.

The Sculptor and the Choice of Subject

Robinson approached the sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1924 about carving the project and sounded him out about his ideas for it. Borglum, a flamboyant and colorful character, was enthusiastic. From early on, his involvement shaped the conception of the memorial. Borglum had trained as an artist first in San Francisco and then in Paris in the studio of Auguste Rodin. Borglum favored sculpting the human figure and he did many portraits. Before he returned to the United States, he received commissions for sculptures in London.

Borglum had already carved one large-scale project and was enthusiastic about doing another. It was he who suggested that the subject of the memorial be national rather than regional, and he developed the concept of four United States presidents who were instrumental in shaping the destiny of the country. He approved of creating the sculptures on a gigantic scale, equivalent to the huge size of the country. Borglum’s choice of subjects to immortalize the United States was accepted. He credited Thomas Jefferson with being the author of the Declaration of Independence and chose him as the first of the four subjects. George Washington was included on the basis of his leading the country militarily at the time of the Revolutionary War and then becoming the country’s first president. Abraham Lincoln preserved the union of North and South at the time of the Civil War. Last, Theodore Roosevelt was a more personal choice by Borglum, who knew him and admired him greatly. Roosevelt was instrumental in the decision to build the Panama Canal, and that was the basis for his inclusion in the list of illustrious contributors to the progress of the United States. Roosevelt had visited the Black Hills. This and his reputation as a leader of the Rough Riders appealed to Borglum and helped win Roosevelt’s popular acceptance among the sculpted heads.

The History and Process of the Work

Doane Robinson had originally planned the carving for another area called the Needles, which was a group of narrow vertical granite outcroppings. When Borglum was invited to come to the Black Hills to inspect the site, he found a better one. A major reason for the change was that he found an outcropping more south facing, which offered better light from sun. The sculpture would be more easily seen, and the quality of the stone was better.

Borglum’s original conception placed Thomas Jefferson’s head on the far left of the group to begin a chronological sequence. Washington’s head followed, but then the chronology broke, with Roosevelt and Lincoln following in that order. Carving began on Washington’s head in 1927, and it was dedicated in 1930. Jefferson’s head was attempted next in the position to the left of Washington’s but insufficient good-quality rock and lack of space stopped the work. The carving of Jefferson’s head began again to the right of Washington’s.

Borglum and his team worked from Borglum’s plaster models, which could be hung over the side of the mountain for the workmen to follow. As each head was started, the top center was located. A thirty-foot horizontal arm, which could move in a circular pattern, extended from that central point. A plumb line could be moved along any point of the arm to measure distances out from the surface of the rock. Each model had a miniature version of this arrangement. Comparing the size of any feature on the plaster model with the movement of the plumb line in and out could translate the proportions of the model to the huge size of the finished carving. These measurements were painted on the stone for the workmen to carve away. Pneumatic drills run by compressed air scored parallel lines of holes to within inches of the level of finish. Work done in this manner could be taught to people who were unfamiliar with stone carving. The finish work was then completed by men trained as stone carvers. Slings called “bos’n” chairs were used to lower the workmen over the side of the cliff face, with a loudspeaker system notifying men working winches when to raise and lower the workers as needed. Borglum would view the sculptures through field glasses from four miles away to see what changes and improvements were necessary. Changes would be indicated to the workers by marking a spot with paint.

The original plan as conceived by Borglum was to include a huge entablature carved into the mountain beside the heads which would list the momentous events of United States history and explain the reason for the choices of subject. This part of the concept was still in the planning stage as late as 1935, when an essay contest was held to choose the historical events to be included and to formulate the wording. A winning entry was chosen, but this part of the momentous scheme was never carried out. Borglum’s plan included another grandiose idea which was cancelled. He intended to include a huge room carved out of the mountain to serve as a hall containing important records of United States history and sculptured busts of notable Americans. This project actually was begun but never progressed beyond a rudimentary stage before it was abandoned.

The total cost of carving the heads into the mountain was $989,992.32. When that cost is set against the serious economic upheaval of the time, it is a wonder that the project ever progressed beyond the beginning stages. Gutzon Borglum made many trips throughout the region to raise funds when money ran out and work had to stop. To boost his fund-raising efforts, he wrote a small book about the project. The carving took six and a half years of actual working time, which was spread over fourteen years because of the lack of funds. After the Depression hit in 1929, continued funding for nonessential projects was harder and harder to find. Yet this project continued off and on through the Depression decade until it was completed in 1941. If it had not been finished at the time the United States entered World War II, it might not have been finished at all. All available manpower had to go into the war effort, and no one would have been available to work on the carving. Borglum himself died in 1941 before the carving was complete. His son, Lincoln Borglum, who had worked closely with his father, was able to take over the almost complete work and put the finishing touches on it.

For Further Information
  • Dean, Robert J. Living Granite: The Story of Borglum and the Mount Rushmore Memorial. New York: Viking Press, 1949. A short history of the making of Mount Rushmore, emphasizing Borglum’s role in it.
  • Fite, Gilbert C. Mount Rushmore. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. The standard history of the project. Includes forty-one photographs; a chronology; a selected bibliography; and maps of the United States, the region, and South Dakota to locate the site.
  • Olwig, Kenneth R. “Reinventing Common Nature: Yosemite and Mount Rushmore–A Meandering Tale of a Double Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Explores the symbolic Eden created at Rushmore, with its attendant environmental issues.
  • Price, Willadene. Gutzon Borglum: Artist and Patriot. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1962. A biography of Borglum with sixty photographs.
  • Smith, Rex Alan. The Carving of Mount Rushmore. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. Presents a fully illustrated history of the enterprise; contains the text of the winning essay for the entablature contest, and a complete bibliography.
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