The History Lesson of Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is a great place to not only sightsee but to learn about our nations history. I went there with my family and mother-in-law, no it was not that bad, I enjoy spending time with my wife’s mother and we get along very well. We had a great time and learned some about the history and how the great monument to some of our nations greatest people was made.

We even got to spend some time with a man who helped make the statue and who has written a frequently asked question and answer book about it. The book is called Mount Rushmore Q&A by Don “Nick” Clifford, and is available on the Internet from the Mount Rushmore Bookstore here: http://mtrushmorebookstore.com/category.asp?category=97

He was at the memorial signing copies of his book that were for sale and I had to get one. Being an aspiring writer I thought this was great. He talked some about what he did at the site, driller and winch man and how he got to work there at such a young age, 17. He told how they drilled holes in the rock and how they would use jack hammers to smooth the surface of the faces.

He had lived in the Rapid City area and had grown up watching sculptor Gutzon Borglum carve his way into history. The mountain today is a tribute to great men but also a testimonial to the accomplishments that can be achieved in the face of adversity and even with derision and jeers from nay Sayers of the whole project. Borglum spent the rest of his life trying to get the project finished with not only problems of nature and money but with people constantly harassing him about how he should not deface a mountain for his own benefit.

It all started with a dream by a man named Doane Robinson, who wanted to add some sort of monument that would encourage tourism into the South Dakota Badlands. He tried and failed to interest anyone until he heard of Mr. Borglum and his recent problems with a committee that found his total commitment and need to take total control of a project to be too much for their taste.

Borglum had been hired to carve a sculpture in memory of the Southern Confederacy by the Stone Mountain Association. The committee in charge of the project, especially the current president of the committee, continued to have differences of opinion till they finally fired Borglum. His work at the time, an unprecedented and many said impossible stone carving on a rock wall would be four hundred feet tall and a quarter mile long relief containing Confederate leaders, soldiers, cavalry and artillery. The actual work that did get accomplished before the final flight of Borglum can still be viewed today in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He destroyed all the models and drawings before fleeing the state in fear of action by the committee.

He received a letter from Robinson about the project of carving a mountain in tribute to some great Presidents and Borglum jumped at the chance. It was just the sort of thing he loved and would be a great tribute to the America he had a passion for. He spent several days hiking with his son around the Black Hills till he decided it could be done, but not exactly sure where.

He returned and started the project, and through the years accomplished more than many thought possible. There was always problems, some small, and others so huge that many called for a halt to the whole project as a huge waste of money. One of the biggest but also the one that worked out for the best was the original positioning of Thomas Jefferson’s sculpture. He had originally been positioned at the right of Washington, but due to faulty rock, was blasted away and repositioned to the left of our first President. Now Washington’s face is predominate on the mountain and has a great profile.

There were other problems with nature and the mountain, a crack was in the middle of the face of the newly positioned Jefferson, but would have to be dealt with somehow. It was decided to tilt his face up so the crack would go through his face and across the upper lip instead of through the nose, being afraid the nose would break off and fall. This crack was then sealed and patched with a piece of granite that was pinned in. This is the only place on the whole sculpture that has been filled with a rock patch.

It took almost fourteen years to complete the Mount Rushmore monument, or not complete but to finish it to the state it is in today. Due to how much had been spent already and the growing problems of Europe in the very early stages of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt asked congress to wind up work there. About a year later, on March 6, 1941 Gutzon Borglum passed away. His son, Lincoln, was asked to continue the work that his father had started and with the money that they had left, to finish it.

On October 31, 1941, the last drilling took place, and in the next few weeks scaffolds were removed and final cleaning was completed. The whole project was finished, in Lincoln Borglum’s own words in his final report, “I do not think any more should be done on figures of the Memorial. It looks very well as it is and I think it is more effective this way, than if carried down as shown in the models.” He also commented that the Hall of Records should be completed but it was canceled by the Director of the Park Service.

A scant few months later, the United States entered into World War II and the subject of moving the pile of rock at the base of the memorial or completing the Hall of Records was never seriously discussed again. The Hall of Records was to be a vault that would hold important documents, a history of democracy and a testament to future generations of why the memorial had been built and who were the people on it. The hall had been started but near the end of the project Gutzon had to abandon it due to pressure from Washington to finish the figures and work on the hall later, but he passed away before he could.

During the construction of the memorial, the government spent $836,000 on the project, with another $153,922.32 coming from fund raising events and from corporations and individuals, but the largest contributer of this money was Gutzon Borglum himself. Amazingly there were no deaths and only a couple of injuries during the entire project. This is a remarkable safety record due in large part to Borglum’s insistence of safety by his men, things like safety harnesses and having sure footing on ledges before taking them off was important to him.

During the years that have followed, many things have been added to the foot of the mountain but nothing has been done to the original carving of the Presidents other than preventive maintenance. The cracks that are in the sculpture have to be sealed, allowing water in and freezing and thawing would cause cracks in the granite and pieces to fall off. This at first was done with Borglum’s recipe of white lead, granite dust and with linseed oil to make a paste, but today is done with high tech modern substances, adhesive caulk and filler from Dow Corning.

The base of the mountain has changed greatly over the years, now it has a modern parking facility and conveniences such as elevators with gift stores and a huge amphitheater in the front for shows. The whole area has been turned into a modern show place but the center attraction of it all is the great yet simple carving that took fourteen years to accomplish.

There is a trail that leads from the Grand View Terrace over looking the mountain called the President’s Trail, it runs up to the foot of the sculpture and is less than a mile long. It does go up and down some stairs and can be a bit tiring, but is a great view of the mountain and you even have a chance to see some of the mountain goats that call the area home.

While my two sons and I were on the President’s Trail, not ten feet off the deck of the trail was a mountain goat sitting on a rock under a pine, resting and keeping cool. He was panting like he had just done a run or whatever it is mountain goats do, probably climbing, and we could hear him clearly. He sat and watched us as we took a few pictures and then continued on our way. We then made our way to the sculptor’s studio for more views of the tools and the model used to carve the mountain.

There is a restaurant and snack shop along with the couple of gift stores and plenty of restrooms. We had an easy time getting around with my mother-in-law who isn’t exactly sprinting marathons any more and had a great time, viewing the great monument and finding out about it’s carving. You can get plenty of information from the Park Service or the South Dakota Tourism for more things about Mount Rushmore.

Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm
South Dakota Tourism: http://www.travelsd.com/

Many people worked on the project, a plaque at the site has been erected with their names, but it took more than just that, it took the dream of men like Doane Robinson and Gutzon Borglum to make it happen. They both saw that men and women have been toiling and even giving their lives for our country and still do today, and that they should never be forgotten.

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