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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Mount Rushmore National Memorial
South Dakota
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Pennington County, about 25 miles southwest of Rapid City and 3 miles southwest of Keystone, just off U.S. 16 on Horse Thief Lake Road.

Carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a sheer peak rising 6,000 feet above sea level in the Black Hills of South Dakota, are the colossal images of four Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. In paying tribute to them, this national memorial also commemorates the growth of the United States through the early part of the 20th century. An incredible engineering feat, the monument was constructed over the course of 14 years at a cost of nearly $1 million. Unique among world sculpture and practically immune to the ravages of time and nature, it also stands as an enduring tribute to the genius of sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

The idea of a mountain sculpture in the Black Hills originated with South Dakota historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 enlisted the support of U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck for such a project. The next year, Robinson acquired the services of sculptor Borglum, who enthusiastically agreed to direct operations. He had been engaged in a similar endeavor at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Ga., where he had begun carving a huge Confederate memorial, but the undertaking had failed. Rejecting Robinson's conception of a monument to prominent western heroes, Borglum envisioned a national memorial on an immense scale. He initially considered carving into a mountainside the images of Presidents Washington and Lincoln complete from the waist up.

In 1925 Senator Norbeck succeeded in obtaining the passage of laws by the South Dakota legislature and by the U.S. Congress authorizing the project. The former body, apparently assuming that another peak near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills was the likely site, also created an administrative unit, the Mount Harney Memorial Association. In August Borglum selected Mount Rushmore, an imposing peak of smooth-grained granite near the town of Keystone. In addition to a picturesque setting, the mount enjoyed the advantage of facing the sun for most of the day, an ideal lighting arrangement.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1959.)

On October 1 Borglum dedicated Mount Rushmore before a crowd of about 1,000 people. He undoubtedly held the ceremony to stimulate public interest, for almost no construction funds had yet been raised. During the next 2 years, he consumed most of his time raising money in the East and in perfecting his design. Eventually choosing as his subjects the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, he believed they would effectively represent not only the westward expansion of the Nation but also its entire history from the time of the American Revolution to his own generation. Meantime, the Mount Harney Memorial Association had managed to acquire some support from Rapid City businessmen, a few State organizations, and a couple of philanthrophists.

The funds collected were rapidly exhausted. By 1927 the project seemed to be on the verge of failure. The rededication of the mountain on August 10 of that year by President Coolidge, however, brought wide national press coverage and some new contributions. Nonetheless, after a few months of work, Borglum was forced to cease operations. Aware that more substantial financial support was needed, he appealed to the Federal Government for aid. In February 1929 Congress responded by creating the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission to replace the Mount Harney Memorial Association and by authorizing Federal appropriations up to $250,000, provided they were matched by private subscriptions. About a decade later, the Federal Government assumed complete financial responsibility for the project.

Creation of the memorial required the use of some unique engineering techniques that Borglum had earlier originated at Stone Mountain. After designing a group of figures to conform to the contour of the mountaintop, he made individual plaster models of each of them to serve as guides for his workmen. The models measured 5 feet from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin; 1 foot on a model equaled 12 feet on the mountainside. Sometimes, for measuring purposes, the models were suspended from the mountaintop by cables.

All the workers were local men trained by Borglum. Using ladders hewn out of pine trees to climb the mountain, they installed a tramway of cables and winches from its base, where they constructed shelters and storage shacks. An elaborate scaffolding system was devised to accommodate drilling and blasting. Drillers, using jackhammers to drill holes for dynamite, were lowered from the peak to the scaffolds in leather swings by hand-operated winches. Microphones and loudspeakers relayed messages for the lowering and raising of the swings. Surface rock had to be blasted away with dynamite to eliminate deep fissures and cracks until only solid granite remained. The actual carving involved a tedious cycle of measuring, blasting, drilling, wedging, and smoothing. A blacksmith shop at the base of the mountain serviced the drills, as many as 400 of which needed to be resharpened each day.

NPS employee on Mount Rushmore
NPS employee inspecting the face of Abraham Lincoln. National Park Service.)

The Washington face was unveiled on July 4, 1930. Jefferson's image proved to be far more difficult. Originally to the north of Washington, in 1933, because of imperfections in the granite, the partially completed figure had to be blasted away and begun anew at a different location. Three years later, on August 29, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Mount Rushmore and dedicated it. The remaining figures, those of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, were dedicated on September 17, 1937, and July 2, 1939. Each head in the group, carved to the scale of a man 465 feet tall, averaged about 60 feet from top to bottom. Each had a nose 20 feet long, a mouth 18 feet wide, and eyes 11 feet across.

But the memorial had not yet reached completion. Besides refinements in the images already carved, Borglum was planning to inscribe a brief history of the United States into the mountain alongside the four figures. Even more fantastic, he had already begun blasting a huge hall of records in the interior of the mountain. The hall was to be a gigantic room filled with busts of individuals representing all phases of U.S. history, bronze and glass cabinets containing historical records carved on aluminum sheets, artifacts of American civilization, and various works of art. Access to the hall was to be via an enormous flight of steps rising 400 feet from a huge granite disk at the base of the mountain.

Mount Rushmore in winter
Mount Rushmore in winter. National Park Service.)

Borglum's sudden death in March 1941 brought an end to such grandiose schemes. His son Lincoln, who had assisted him for many years, supervised the final work, completed in October. Construction had extended over a period of 14 years, though much of that time the laborers had been idle because of financial difficulties and weather conditions. The cost had almost reached $1 million. At the base of the mountain lay 450,000 tons of stone rubble, which has never been removed.

By 1941 the National Park Service had assumed full responsibility for the memorial. Since that time, it has greatly enhanced administrative and visitor accommodations. Uniformed rangers, informational signs, leaflets, and museum exhibits provide interpretive services. Each evening from June through September a dramatic lighting ceremony is held in the amphitheater.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004