A Mountain and Its Monuments: Mt. Rushmore, SD

The massive carving of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.

Like many public projects, Mt. Rushmore was conceived as a way to encourage tourism. The project was thought up by Doane Robinson of the South Dakota Historical Society in the early 1920s. Peter Norbeck, who was serving as South Dakota’s Senator at the time, gained Washington approval and funding for the concept. Robinson then proceeded to hire the sculpture Gutzon Borglum to implement the vision. It was Borglum who selected the specific location, chose the four presidents to be featured, designed the sculpture, and oversaw the work, i.e. just about everything.

Given George Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War and as the first president of the nation, he was a natural for inclusion.
As was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves and saved the union.
Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president of the US, but Borglum chose him because he nearly doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase, which by the way, also included South Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican known for his strong foreign policy overseas and his progressive reforms at home. The latter included the control of powerful corporations, protection of consumers, and pro-conservation efforts— all worthwhile efforts, even more important today than they were then.

As might be expected, an incredible amount of work was involved in creating the massive sculptures shown above. Started in 1927, the work took 14 years to complete. Over 400 tons of rock were removed— around 90% by carefully placed dynamite charges and the rest by jack hammers and facing bits. The latter designed to smooth the rock. Over 400 workers were recruited to do the work, among them local miners, lumbermen and ranchers. Going to work involved first climbing 700 steps to the top of the mountain. Workers weren’t paid for the climb. The carvers would then be lowered by rope to do the job.

This illustration from the Visitors’ Center provides details on the size of the sculptures. It doesn’t capture the size nearly as well as another photo in the Visitors Center, however…
A nostril-sized carver works on what I think is Roosevelt’s nose. (Photo from Visitor Center at Mt. Rushmore.)
This early photo, also on display at the Visitors Center, shows Mt. Rushmore before carving commenced. The bottom to top crack on the left marks the beginning; the knobs on the right mark the ending.
This photo will provide perspective by moving back and forth between the two photos. Originally, Borglum had plan to carve Jefferson on the right of Washington but poor quality rock led him to blast off the work that had been done and put Washington first.
A trail leads down to Borglum’s studio from the main visitor area and displays the models of the sculpture he worked from. Note Lincoln’s hand. The original plan had been to represent the top half of the president’s bodies. Problems with the lower rock base and funding led to only the presidents’ heads being carved.
The view from Borglum’s workshop provided him with a clear view of the work in progress.
Another trail from the workshop brings you closer to the presidents and provides a different perspective.
This was our first view of the monument when we drove in from state highway 385 on highway 144.
A close up of George.
In conclusion: With over two million visitors a year, Mt. Rushmore is one of America’s best loved national monuments. South Dakota has more than succeeded in creating the tourist attraction it first dreamed of.

Next post: It’s back to Egypt with a focus on Memphis, a giant statue of Ramses II, and a look at one of the first pyramids created.

38 thoughts on “A Mountain and Its Monuments: Mt. Rushmore, SD

  1. The only time we were there we had three small children in tow and it was December (we were moving from Texas back to Alberta.) Your photos are a good reminder that we have to go there again!

      • It was 1979. I seem to have 5 slides that we purchased so that we could see what Mt. Rushmore looked like when it wasn’t snowing. We have one slide we took – the President’s faces are barely visible through the snow.

    • Thanks Ray. I can’t even start to imagine all of the photos that have been taken, Ray. At 2 million per year with each taking numerous photographs the numbers add up quickly. And I agree on being there. It’s kind of like seeing a photo of the Grand Canyon as opposed to perching on the edge or hiking down.

  2. I enjoyed finally learning about Mt Rushmore. Not surprisingly I’m not that up on my US history 😁 so I’ve wondered from time to time about this monumental carving. What a great idea Doane Robinson had.

    • The Presidents were all good and great people, Alison. We are in desperate need of such leadership now. It was an excellent idea and very well executed. Hard to imagine all of the work that went into it. –Curt

  3. You have made my day! I love the photos from the different angles and the history. It looks like you were there on a beautiful day too.

  4. Wow Curt, I’ve never seen it so up close and personal. How amazing and what an extra-ordinate amount of work. It’s really hard to fathom how they got this so exact and the measures they “climbed” literally to work on a nostril.
    Thank you for this wonderful post. I’ll be waiting for Egypt up next💞 💗

  5. Fascinating to say the least, Curt! It’s hard to fathom this being completed in the first place. Another destination on the bucket list, but thanks for the details and wonderful photos. I enjoyed reading the history behind this monument. Now I want to go even more than before!

  6. Here’s another interesting tidbit for you. Borglum died before the project was completed, and his eldest son Lincoln (named after the president, of course) finished the work. Lincoln Borglum has some Texas connections. He created this statue for the Loreto chapel at the Presidio in Goliad: the site of the massacre of Fannin’s men during the Texas revolution. Obviously, Lincoln Borglum’s sculpture was done well after that fact!

    • Thanks Linda. Lincoln had served as his dad’s right hand man for several years. Work was wrapped up in 1941 because of WWII. One task that Borglum had dreamed of, the building of a repository for key American documents, was not completed until much later. It was to be at the base of Lincoln with marble steps leading up to it. It was finally finished in 1998 without the steps and includes information on how and why the monument was built plus copies of some key documents. No steps were carved. The titanium case with its information is for posterity.
      Another interesting fact was that Borglum was originally hired to do the Stone Mountain Sculpture and worked closely with the KKK, with whom he was sympathetic. Eventual disagreement led to him abandoning the project to be done by others.

  7. Curt, we were there in 2005 and I was overwhelmed by Mt. Rushmore. It is a masterpiece for sure, but (and you might disagree with me here), it left me feeling uneasy. In the end, I have mixed feelings about this sculpture of America’s leaders and founders carved on the earth overtaken from the native people that lived in this country. So while I could and do appreciate the artistry and the grand effort of this carving (of men who were mortals and thus deeply flawed), I am also conflicted.

    • Interestingly, Sylvia, it was originally supposed to be of Native Americans and carried out in the Custer State Park Needles that I posted on before. What was done to Native Americans was terrible, no doubt about it, and I have posted on it several times over they years. In general, I feel that their selection of who to focus on represented some of America’s best presidents.

  8. This was absolutely fascinating, Curt. I so appreciate the research and information, photos from the past and present. I liked seeing the view from Borglum’s workshop. Many thanks.

    • As we travel, Jet, I am constantly amazed by what we find. The natural world, of course, which we love, but also the history and examples of what humans can accomplish when they are being creative instead of destructive. The pure genius and dedication. Thanks.

  9. I never really thought about how amazing that sculpture is. It’s gigantic! And who knew what they’d face as they started cutting away at it? That early photo of the ridge looks so craggy and split. Oh, and I heard they’re thinking of adding Trump. 🙂 🙂

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