For some, Mount Rushmore might appear like the perfect place to hide amazing mysteries. This idea, in fact, clearly wasn’t lost on Hollywood, as demonstrated by the golden city discovered under the mountain in 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets. But in reality, Rushmore really does holds a real secret, after all.
Mount Rushmore is one of the United States’ most iconic monuments, right up there with the Statue of Liberty. As if you didn’t know, the landform is shaped into 60-foot-tall faces of some of the nation’s supposedly greatest presidents. These are Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
The monument attracts a huge number of visitors each year, apparently somewhere in the region of three million people. Indeed, Mount Rushmore is popular because of the powerful image it projects. But it’s also supposed to serve as a symbol for the birth of a nation founded on democratic ideals.
Having said that, however, this notion is a little problematic – especially when considered from a Native American perspective. In fact, U.S. authority over the area of Mount Rushmore has been challenged by this community for decades. And in 1971, activists occupied the mountain, led by a man named John Fire Lame Deer. Placing a staff at the peak of the mountain, he proclaimed that it was now called Mount Crazy Horse.
Mount Rushmore also attracts almost three million visitors every year. And the memorial is popular not only because of the powerful image it projects, but also because it serves as a symbol for the birth of a nation founded on democratic ideals.
Today, a monument dedicated to Lame Deer’s efforts is being built in an area recognized as sacred by Native Americans. The ongoing Crazy Horse Memorial is being sculpted into Thunderhead Mountain, situated just 17 miles away from Mount Rushmore. When it’s finished, the memorial will actually be bigger than the older monument.
As for Mount Rushmore itself, though, the idea was initially thought up back in 1923. The notion came from a historian named Doane Robinson, a man who concerned himself with the study of South Dakota. Apparently, Robinson believed that such a work would serve to draw tourists into visiting the state.
In 1924, Robinson turned to a Danish-American sculptor named John Gutzon Borglum to help undertake the project. The work was initially intended for the Needles, a series of granite pillars located in South Dakota’s Black Hills. But as Borglum eventually discovered, these structures weren’t fit for such a task.
Borglum felt that the granite making up the Needles was inappropriate for the purposes of sculpting. Moreover, the structures themselves are quite narrow, and thus they would’ve been unable to bear the designs. Despite this lack of sculptures, the Needles are a popular attraction today, bringing in around 300,000 visitors a year.
As things turned out, plans were made to undertake the envisioned sculptures in another place. This new location, of course, ended up being Mount Rushmore, which is also situated in the Black Hills. Upon seeing the new the site, Borglum is said to have remarked, “America will march along that skyline.”
The Mount Rushmore site had previously been referred to by other names. To Native American tribes in the area, it was variously known as Cougar Mountain or The Six Grandfathers. At least, this is after they’ve been translated into English. Later, various colonizers called the landform Slaughterhouse Mountain, Keystone Cliffs and Sugarloaf Mountain.
The mountain first came to be controlled by the United States after military operations between 1876 and 1878. Then, in 1885, the area became a source of interest to a number of people, including the affluent Charles E. Rushmore. Apparently, Rushmore used to quip about the landform bearing his name – and this officially became a reality in 1930.
With the site of the planned monuments now decided upon, thoughts could turn to the actual designs. Apparently, Robinson had originally wanted to carve out famous figures of the American Wild West. Borglum, however, convinced him that they needed to do something of national importance – so they decided to sculpt presidential faces instead.
The men’s idea was groundbreaking, but they nonetheless lacked the capital to actually see it through. So, they enlisted the help of a South Dakota senator named Peter Norbeck. The politician, in turn, invited President Calvin Coolidge to the state in an attempt to persuade him to provide federal funding.
Knowing that the president loved fishing, the men hatched a plan. They had numerous trout put in the river outside his lodging every night. And President Coolidge enjoyed catching them so much that he stayed for an extra couple of months. All of which gave Robinson and Borglum enough time to work their persuasive magic.
Borglum chose to sculpt four presidents he considered to be important. Washington was decided upon for being the nation’s founder, whereas Jefferson they chose for authoring of the Declaration of Independence. Roosevelt was selected for overseeing the opening of the Panama Canal, and Lincoln for leading the country through the American Civil War.
At the start of the project, it was originally intended that each president would be depicted all the way down to their waists. But as we know now, this isn’t how it worked out. Ultimately, a lack of funding got in the way of a more complete likeness being made into a reality.
Works on the monument commenced at the beginning of October 1927, with several hundred people initially involved in the project. These laborers had different areas of expertise, with some being sculptors, while others were climbers or miners. Making use of jackhammers and dynamite, the group started to chip away at the mountain.
In order for laborers to attend to their work, they climbed some specially built stairs to the peak of the mountain. There, they were then fastened into harnesses and lowered down the bluff by strong cables. Throughout the course of the project, those employees worked through weather conditions ranging from scorching heat to freezing cold.
Apparently, some of those involved in the works weren’t all that comfortable with being so high up from the ground. And on top of that, the usage of dynamite meant that it probably wasn’t the safest job in the world. In fact, the explosive was utilized for removing the vast majority of the rock.
Only when there were a few inches of stone left to carve away would more precise tools be utilized. Numerous holes were then drilled into the rock, ensuring that it became fragile. This was a process referred to as honeycombing, and it meant that the stone could easily be cleared away.
Once the business of honeycombing had been completed, it was then time to even out the jagged rock. In order to do this, the laborers would make use of facing tools which were controlled by hand. Such efforts would then ensure that the mountain’s face was left sleek and level.
The first president to be constructed was, fittingly enough, George Washington. This sculpture took around seven years to get done, ultimately slowed down due to the Great Depression. But on Independence Day 1934, it was ready to be unveiled to the people. Before it was displayed, though, it was concealed by a U.S. flag – a practice maintained for the other sculptures.
Next up for the workers was the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. At first, this sculpture was going to be situated to Washington’s right, but things didn’t quite work out that way. Indeed, with the work on this side already well underway, it was eventually concluded that the rock was unsuitable.
Apparently unable to salvage the Jefferson sculpture on this right side, Borglum ordered that the work be completely destroyed. It was blown up with dynamite, and the work recommenced to the left of Washington. In 1936 the likeness was publicly displayed in a ceremony which President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended.
Speaking at the event, Roosevelt discussed the quality of the sculpture. “On many occasions, when a new project is presented to you on paper and then, later on, you see the accomplishment, you are disappointed,” he said. “But it is just the opposite of that in what we are looking at now.”
Lincoln was next, supposedly the most difficult of all the presidents to carve. This was down to his trademark facial hair, which posed a problem to the workers. Nonetheless, they got the job done to the right of the existing pair. And on September 17, 1937, the work was officially dedicated – 150 years to the day since the U.S. constitution was signed.
Last up was Roosevelt’s sculpture. By this point, however, plans were in place to build facilities for visitors arriving at Mount Rushmore. This meant that there wasn’t much room left, and so Roosevelt was constructed in between Jefferson and Lincoln. From a structural point of view, this was a cause for concern, but the work was nonetheless dedicated in 1939.
In 1941 works on Mount Rushmore National Memorial officially came to an end. After 14 years of dangerous and difficult work, the project was finished – and not a single person was killed on the job. Sadly, though, Gutzon Borglum never got to see the finished sculpture. He passed away shortly before the project’s completion, with management passing to his son Lincoln.
Despite the fact that four presidents had been immortalized, some of the elder Borglum’s original plans never came to fruition. For instance, he thought it important that the monument should bear an inscription. As he put it, “You may as well drop a letter into the world’s postal service without an address or signature as to send that carved mountain into history without identification.”
Indeed, Borglum had envisioned an inscription 80 feet wide and 120 feet tall that described important events overseen by the four presidents. That idea, however, was put on hold as the words wouldn’t actually have been readable from a distance. And aside from that, there wasn’t really enough room, either.
But Borglum – who began the project when he was 60 years of age – had other ideas, too. Besides the awe he hoped the monument would inspire, he also envisioned it having a more practical purpose. Basically, the artist decided to create a large hidden chamber in the mountain itself to hold historical documents.
The room that Borglum designed was to be 80 by 100 feet – almost as big as his canceled inscription. It would be crafted right into the mountain and concealed behind the carving of Lincoln’s head. Furthermore, the sculptor also wanted to carve an 800-foot stairway leading to the space.
The proposed room was going to be known as the Hall of Records. Inside, it was designed to hold national treasures such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States. And alongside those artifacts, busts of Americans who had made valuable contributions to the world would be on display.
The room’s construction actually did get underway, beginning during the summer of 1938. And despite the difficulty of blasting through the thick rock, the laborers eventually managed to create a 70-foot tunnel. The work at this time was a little rugged, but things were seemingly developing in the right direction.
Unfortunately for Borglum and his plans, though, Congress ordered that these works come to a halt in 1939. Instead, he was forced to focus on finishing up the presidential sculptures themselves. Thus, the artist’s room was abandoned, with few people realizing that there was a secret chamber behind the colossal famous faces.
For many decades, Borglum’s planned Hall of Records lay in obscurity, incomplete and lost to memory. But eventually, his vision was revisited. Indeed, in 1998 the National Parks Service placed a titanium vault at the unfinished room’s entrance. Several decades after his death, the artist’s idea had finally come to fruition.
A box containing 16 panels was placed inside the vault. These elaborate on the history of Mount Rushmore, detailing the monument’s building works. They also reveal why those four presidents were specifically chosen for depiction on the mountain, as well as detailing the history of the United States more broadly.
The vault was topped by a granite capstone that features a quote from Borglum. It reads, “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”
Although the vault isn’t today accessible to visitors, it nonetheless put the final touch on Borglum’s masterpiece. Moreover, officials hope it will also act as a sturdy time capsule for future generations down the line. Indeed, by peeking inside, they will be able to gain an understanding of a time long past.
Today, the monument in general is being monitored for any threats to its integrity. This, it’s hoped, will ensure that the carvings endure through the ravages of time. After all, the faces of Mount Rushmore have become great American symbols on their own terms, much like the men they depict.