Mount Rushmore Essay

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, colossal sculpture in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota, U.S. It lies about 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Rapid City, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Custer, and just north of Custer State Park. Huge representations of the heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, each about 60 feet (18 metres) tall, are carved in granite on the southeast side of Mount Rushmore. The mountain itself, at an elevation of 5,725 feet (1,745 metres), was named in 1885 for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer. The memorial, which covers 2 square miles (5 square km), was designated in 1925 and dedicated in 1927. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) assumed administration of the site in 1933.

Creation of the sculpture

The idea of creating a monumental sculpture in the Black Hills was first suggested in 1923 by South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, who had envisioned creating likenesses of famous Native American and American Old West personalities on a needlelike rock formation in Custer State Park. However, American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was hired to design and execute the project, rejected that site because the rock there was too eroded and unstable and instead chose nearby Mount Rushmore with its solid granite rock face. Borglum also proposed that the four heads in the sculpture symbolize the first 150 years of the United States: Washington to represent the country’s founding; Jefferson, its expansion across the continent; Roosevelt, its development domestically and as a global power; and Lincoln, its preservation through the ordeal of civil war.

Work on the memorial began in October 1927, shortly after its dedication by Pres. Calvin Coolidge, and continued, off and on, for the next 14 years. Progress was hampered by periodic funding shortfalls, design issues (the likeness of Jefferson, originally on Washington’s right side, had to be redone on the other side), and the death of Borglum in March 1941, several months before the sculpture was finished. Borglum’s son, Lincoln, took over the final work on the project, which was completed in October 1941. In all, the work consisted of six and a half years of actual carving by hundreds of workers, who used dynamite, jackhammers, chisels, and drills to shape the massive stone sculpture assemblage. Borglum’s technique involved blasting away much of the rock with explosives, drilling a large number of closely spaced holes, and then chipping the remaining rock away until the surface was smooth. Much of the 450,000 tons of rock removed in the process was left in a heap at the base of the memorial. The federal government paid most of the nearly $1 million cost, with much of the remainder coming from private donations. Washington’s head was dedicated in 1930, Jefferson’s in 1936, Lincoln’s in 1937, and Roosevelt’s in 1939.

The contemporary memorial

The Mount Rushmore sculpture ensemble quickly became one of the United States’ great iconic images. The memorial is now among the most heavily visited NPS properties and is one of the top tourist attractions in the country. Over the years, components of the site’s infrastructure, such as accessibility and visitor facilities and services, have been improved and expanded to accommodate the two million or more people who go there annually. Among these is the Avenue of Flags (opened 1976), a walkway leading toward the mountain that is flanked on both sides by flags of the country’s 56 states and territories. Another major renovation, completed in 1998, added the Grand View Terrace and its amphitheatre, affording vistas of the monument at the north (mountainside) end of the Avenue of Flags; the Presidential Trail, which provides the closest views of the sculpture; and the Lincoln Borglum Museum, which has exhibits on the memorial’s history. The Sculptor’s Studio (1939) displays tools used in the carving and the scale model used to create the sculpture.

Mount Rushmore lies within Black Hills National Forest. Ponderosa pines are the predominant tree cover in the region, with groves of aspens where the pines have been disturbed by such phenomena as forest fires or infestation by pine bark beetles. A variety of grasses and wildflowers grow in more open areas. Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) and mule deer are the most common large mammals found around Mount Rushmore, and bison, elk, and pumas (mountain lions) live in the vicinity as well. The memorial also is home to squirrels, chipmunks, wood rats, and other small mammals and to a variety of birds, such as nuthatches, pine siskins, and western tanagers. In addition to Custer State Park, other nearby attractions include Wind Cave National Park (south) and Crazy Horse Memorial and Jewel Cave National Monument (both southwest). Mount Rushmore is easily accessible by road. There are dining facilities and a visitor’s centre at the memorial but no overnight accommodations.

Kenneth Pletcher

I felt drawn to Mount Rushmore, instinctively, like a spawning fish to the head of a river. I wanted to look American bigness squarely in the face.

Somewhere on the way to Mount Rushmore, we realized that none of us knew, for sure, which presidents were carved into the mountain. The image was so familiar that we had never really bothered to look closely. After some discussion, we managed to agree on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But who was the fourth? John Adams? Benjamin Franklin? Alexander Hamilton? We were just guessing figures from money. We had to look it up. It was Thomas Jefferson. I asked my son to draw me a picture, from memory, of Rushmore, and after several minutes of earnest work, he revealed something that looked like a police sketch of a middle-aged Beatles cover band that has been caught shoplifting after a gig at a strip mall. None of the presidents had a nose, Roosevelt’s glasses had fallen off and Jefferson (who sported a jet-black mop-top) was on the wrong side of Washington. Otherwise, we all agreed, the picture was excellent.

“I think I really nailed Abraham Lincoln,” my son said. “He has that long face and skinny chin.”

My wife read in the local paper about a man who was in trouble for setting off an elk stampede with a drone. We drove off into the South Dakota vastness.

The Black Hills are a geological oddity — an island of rock thrusting out from an ocean of prairie. They contain some of the oldest and hardest stone in the world; over the course of 70 million years or so, erosion has sculpted them into spindly towers and ragged loaves, 5,000-foot-high turrets protected by moats and moonscape boulders. To the Plains Indians, the area was supernaturally charged, a place of powerful spirits, sudden raging storms, magic caves and special trees — ponderosa pine, tall and straight and strong — that they liked to use for lodgepoles. The landscape was so rugged and remote that it managed to repel white civilization deep into the 19th century.

This changed suddenly in the 1870s, when the notorious George Armstrong Custer arrived to make a map of the Black Hills. (In a bizarre coincidence — history ripped from today’s headlines — Custer’s most trusted Indian guide joined the expedition from Standing Rock and was named Maga.) In the course of their exploring, Custer’s men discovered gold. Word flew across the nation (“From the grass roots down, it was ‘pay dirt’ ”), and before long a fire hose of white Americans went spraying into the isolated land, violating an Indian treaty with impunity, setting up mining towns and trading posts, blasting roads through mountains, changing the nature of the place forever.

Before long, of course, the boom went bust. Many miners left; the region’s economy sagged. In the 1920s, local boosters proposed an eccentric solution. What if some of the Black Hills’ ancient rock could be carved into a monument to American history — a patriotic tribute that would also serve, in this new era of automobiles, as a roadside attraction? Spindly granite towers, it was suggested, could be carved into free-standing statues honoring heroes of the American West: Red Cloud, Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark. Instead of gold, South Dakota could harvest tourists.

Only one American sculptor seemed up to the task. He was, like the sculpture he would create, a larger-than-life weirdo: John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, son of a Danish immigrant, friend of Auguste Rodin, publicity hound, populist, salesman, self-styled tough guy with a white Stetson and a flowing scarf and a dark, bushy mustache. At the time, Borglum was working on another huge sculpture chiseled into the front of a mountain: a tribute, in Georgia, to great heroes of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. (The project was initially sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and entangled with the Ku Klux Klan.)

When Borglum was enticed to visit the Black Hills, he saw presidents: Washington, Lincoln. Anything else, he argued, would be too limited, too provincial, not sufficiently star-spangled “U.S.A.!!!” Borglum believed that America was a special artistic challenge, a place so heroically grand that the effete styles of Europe could never hope to do it justice. “Art in America should be American,” he wrote, “drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement.” He accepted the challenge to transform the Black Hills.

From the beginning, the project struck many locals as absurd. Controversy raged in the newspapers. To carve statues in the mountains, one wrote, “would be as incongruous and ridiculous as keeping a cow in the rotunda of the Capitol building.” “Why not just paint a mustache on everything?” another asked.

Funding for Mount Rushmore was touch-and-go, as was political and public support. But Borglum would not give up. The project took far longer, and cost far more money, than anyone could have imagined. Logistics were murderously complex. Men were lowered over the rock face on sling chairs; carving was done mainly with dynamite and jackhammers. At one point, a crack running through the stone threatened to break Thomas Jefferson’s nose, so his face was blown off the mountain and started again in a different spot.

Mount Rushmore is not just big; it is about bigness — a monument to monumentalism. Borglum was obsessed with America’s size: the heroic story of a handful of tiny East Coast settlements growing to engulf an entire continent. The four presidents were chosen largely for their roles in this expansion. Jefferson, for instance, not only wrote the Declaration of Independence but also greatly increased the country via the Louisiana Purchase. Teddy Roosevelt oversaw the creation of the Panama Canal, which increased America’s global reach.

The sculpting of Mount Rushmore began in 1927, with a ceremony overseen by President Calvin Coolidge, who wore a comically large hat. Work spanned 14 years, encompassing some of the defining spasms of American history: the Great Depression, the beginning of World War II. Separate dedication ceremonies were held for each of the four faces; Franklin Roosevelt himself came to dedicate Jefferson. The sculpture was finished one month and one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Work would have continued — the plan was to depict each of the presidents down to the waist — but funding began to dry up again, and Borglum died, and after a few finishing touches, the figures were abandoned as good enough. This was precisely the moment when American influence was about to explode, the dawn of 50 years of prosperity and cultural dominance. Mount Rushmore was completed, conveniently, just in time to serve as a kind of superheated mascot for the mythology of the Greatest Generation and baby boomers: that America’s hugeness is bound up with its nobility, that it deservedly dominates the globe.

The granite of Mount Rushmore is so hard that the sculptures will erode at a rate of one inch every 10,000 years.

Several times, as we drove to Mount Rushmore, we worried that the road was too small for our car. We had rented a huge S.U.V., like a tank without the gun turret — a rolling monolith of American power — and the road to Rushmore was old, narrow and winding. It passed through forests of ponderosa pine; the trees held the snow way out on the tips of their branches, in clumps, as if they were clutching snowballs. The road, in summer, is loaded with traffic, but that morning we had it all to ourselves. The pavement was covered with a skin of snow; we chugged over it with total confidence. In this way, winding and winding, switchback after switchback, we made our way up the mountain.

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