Over a 14 year period, workers removed a half million tons of stone, digging as deep as a 120 feet, to carve the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.  The scale was, and is, unprecedented.  Washington’s face spans 60 feet, his nose 20 feet, and each eye, 11 feet; Roosevelt’s mustache spreads another 20 feet, while Lincoln’s mole requires a mere 16 inches.  The total cost, most of it footed by the federal government, was only $989,992.32, more than repaid by the 50 million visitors since 1930.

Mount Rushmore tells the story of the project and the man who made it possible.  Ego, drive, and vision marked Gutzon Borglum.  The intemperate artist turned sculptor made his reputation in the early 1900s fashioning pieces like the bust of Abraham Lincoln that Teddy Roosevelt displayed in the White House.  A commission to carve a Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain in Georgia, however, ended in disaster.  Progress on the 1500-foot memorial proved sluggish and money was always in short supply.  When the backers accused Borglum of mismanaging funds, he destroyed the models for the memorial and walked away from the project.  His reputation reached an all-time low.

His resurrection materialized from an unexpected source.  Doane Robinson, the state historian of South Dakota, contacted Borglum.  Wouldn’t it be nice to carve a memorial, say of Lewis & Clark, in the face of a South Dakota mountain?  Borglum agreed, but wanted something a bit more dramatic.  He suggested the busts of four presidents, and Robinson agreed.  Few within the state, however, were enthusiastic about the project and money trickled in slowly.  It was only after Senator Peter Norbeck became involved that cash began to ebb and flow by way of the federal government.

Nothing went as scheduled and no one was sure the project was even physically possible.  Money continually ran out, and skilled laborers were difficult to come by.  Demanding tasks required workers to hang suspended from the 500 foot mountain with a 40-pound jackhammer as the wind blew dust in their faces and winter weather halted the project four months out of each year.  The consistency of the granite also varied, causing multiple design changes.  Borglum himself caused a number of problems, offending supporters, threatening to quit, and arriving in Washington, D.C., unannounced, to solicit more funds. 

While such an undertaking as Mount Rushmore tempts one to recognize Borglum as a visionary, it also begs several questions.  Why deface a natural structure (a monument in itself) to create such a self-aggrandizing edifice?  Why build a monument representing “American” mythology on land sacred to the Dakota Sioux?  However one answers these questions, Mount Rushmore became the national memorial Borglum envisioned and then some.  Like the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, it provides a mythic image that has become ingrained in the American consciousness.  

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


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