Memorial History

Getting this project underway was a challenge all by itself. Once Doane Robinson and others had found a sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, they had to get permission to do the carving. Senator Peter Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson were instrumental in getting the legislation passed to allow the carving. Williamson drafted two bills, one each to be introduced in the United States Congress and the South Dakota Legislature. The bill requesting permission to use federal land for the memorial easily passed through Congress. The bill sent to the South Dakota Legislature faced more opposition. The Mount Harney National Memorial bill was defeated twice before narrowly passing. Governor Gunderson signed the bill on March 5, 1925, and established the Mount Harney Memorial Association later that summer.

President Calvin Coolidge, wearing a dark suit and cowboy boots delivers a speech on August 10, 1927, at the Mount Rushmore dedication ceremony.  He is surrounded by a small crowd, some standing, some sitting, many wearing hats.
President Calvin Coolidge delivers a speech on August 10, 1927, at the Mount Rushmore dedication ceremony.

Charles D'Emery

Building Support

Early in the project, money was hard to find, despite Borglum's promise that eastern businessmen would gladly make large donations. He also promised the citizens of South Dakota that they would not be responsible for paying for any of the mountain carving. In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge was in the Black Hills and Borglum was planning a formal dedication of the mountain. Borglum hired a plane to fly over the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park where Coolidge was staying. As he flew over, Borglum dropped a wreath to invite the President to the dedication ceremony. President Coolidge agreed to attend the ceremony, which was held on August 10, 1927, and gave a speech promising federal funding for the project.

Borglum arranged a meeting with the United States Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to secure his support for the project and the passage of a funding bill, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Act. Borglum was able to convince Secretary Mellon of the importance of the project and gain his support for funding the entire cost. Gutzon Borglum instead asked only for half of what he needed, believing he would be able to match federal funding dollar for dollar with private donations. Senator Norbeck was stunned that Borglum had turned down the offer of full federal funding.

The First Funding Arrives

President Coolidge signed the bill authorizing government matching funds up to $250,000. The bill also called for the creation of a 12 member Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission, with members appointed by the President. Coolidge appointed 10 members, leaving the final two spots to be filled by incoming president Herbert Hoover.

When Herbert Hoover took office, he quickly appointed the final two members to the commission, but did not seem in a hurry to meet with the commission, as required by the funding bill before work on the memorial could begin. Congressman Williamson was asked to make an appointment with the President and request that he organize the first commission meeting. Frustrated by the slow pace, Borglum decided to attempt to visit President Hoover himself. When he arrived at the White House, Borglum got into an altercation with the President's secretary and Williamson's appointment was canceled. Congressman Williamson was able to eventually reschedule a meeting with Hoover and convince him of the importance of the project and conducting the first commission meeting. President Hoover met with the commission within a few days, and officers were elected. On the following day, Congressman Williamson and John Boland, the newly elected secretary of the executive committee of the Mount Rushmore Commission, went to pick up the first $54,670.56 from Secretary Mellon. This amount matched what had already been spent on the project by the previous Mount Harney Memorial Association.

One notable exclusion from the new Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission was Doane Robinson. The one person most responsible for conceiving the idea and who supported it for so long, Robinson's name was inexplicably not even on the list of potential candidates to serve on the commission. He continued to support the project and generously offered, "Let me help where I can." Soon, feeling unnecessary, Robinson started to drift away from the Rushmore project.


The Carving Begins

With the commission organized and money in the bank, Borglum could now begin to work in earnest on the mountain. He hired workers who began to install machinery and construct facilities. During the 1930's Senator Norbeck worked tirelessly to secure continued funding through emergency relief programs that were part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which were also matched with funds from the original appropriation bill.

In 1933, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6166, which drastically changed the management of the project. Mount Rushmore was now placed under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and was supervised by engineer Julian Spotts, who began to look for ways to improve efficiency and working conditions. Gutzon Borglum, always uneasy with outside control over his projects, became resentful of being under "the watchful eye of the government.

Borglum successfully returned control of the project to an appointed commission, mostly of his choosing, in 1938. The new commission allowed Borglum nearly complete control over most aspects of the project. During this time of increased freedom, Borglum began construction of a large repository, called the Hall of Records, in a valley behind the sculpture. This repository was intended to tell the story of Mount Rushmore and of the United States . After the United States Congress threatened to cut off all funding for the project unless used specifically to finish the sculpture itself, Borglum reluctantly stopped work on the hall in 1939. Due to later events, the Hall of Records was never finished.

Gutzon Borglum spent much of the last two years of the project traveling and working to secure additional funding. While he was away his son, Lincoln Borglum, supervised the work on Mount Rushmore. In March, 1941, as a final dedication was being planned, Gutzon Borglum died. This fact, along with the impending American involvement in World War II, led to the end of the work on the mountain. On October 31, 1941, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was declared a completed project.

Gaining permission to carve a mountain, acquiring funding and managing varied personalities were all a part of the challenge in creating Mount Rushmore National Memorial. For those involved, keeping the project moving forward often seemed more difficult than the actual work of carving the granite into a colossal sculpture of the four presidents. In the end, cooler heads, charm and determination allowed the memorial to become a reality. Mount Rushmore National Memorial has since become a great icon of American history.

Last updated: January 26, 2023

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