Mount Rushmore National Monument

DSC_0153The most fascinating thing about Mount Rushmore (to me) is that it’s preposterous. It’s in the middle of nowhere, carved from a mountain with  controversial ownership, and features four men with no obvious connection to the region. My longstanding fascination with monuments however, meant there was no way I could do a road trip through this part of the U.S. without stopping to see it, and it ended up providing content around all three of my targeted subjects: nature, women, and cultural legacies. It’s tucked away in the remote but gorgeous southwest corner of South Dakota, in the middle of the Black Hills National Forest.  The forest is managed for both industry (timber, mining and cattle) and recreational use (hiking, ATV trails, skiing, snowmobiling, water sports and fishing), so there is plenty to do in the area.

The idea for Mount Rushmore was the brain child of attorney and state historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 came up with the concept after reading about Stone Mountain in Georgia (the largest bas relief carving in the world and highly controversial.)  Robinson’s original idea was to feature famous people from the American West, like Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), and Buffalo Bill Cody, and to carve their likeness into the rock formation known as the Needles.  His idea was economically driven, as Robinson thought a great monument would draw tourism into the area.

In 1924, Robinson convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who had worked on Stone Mountain, to travel to South Dakota in order to determine if his idea was feasible.  It was not.  In addition to being a sacred site for the Native Americans in the area, the granite of the Needles was not structurally capable of being carved on such a scale.  I found it interesting that as a historian, Robinson would certainly have understood the cultural significance of his original site selection, so it would seem physical considerations were the primary driver to choose an alternate site. The alternate site was also controversial, as it was located in disputed territory.  In fact, in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government had illegally taken the land and awarded the Sioux Nation roughly $120 million in compensation.  The Sioux refused the settlement and continue to this day to demand the return of the land.  Ultimately, the location was chosen for its smooth, fine grained granite (which erodes very slowly) and southern exposure.

In 1925, Congress authorized the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission and in 1927, work began.  As chief sculptor overseeing the project, Borglum quickly discarded Robinson’s original idea for potential subjects, and instead decided to focus on men with more national appeal.  The four presidents were chosen due to both their popularity, and their roles in expanding the nation.  400 workers, under Borglum’s direction, began to dynamite and slowly chisel the faces in the rock.  The Chief Carver of the mountain was Luigi del Bianco, an Italian immigrant who was chosen to work on this project because of his remarkable skill at etching emotions and personality into his carved portraits.

In 1933, the National Park Service took the project under its jurisdiction.  By July 4, 1934, Washington’s face was completed and dedicated. Thomas Jefferson’s face was dedicated in 1936, and the face of Abraham Lincoln followed in 1937.  Also in 1937, a bill was introduced in Congress to add the head of civil-rights leader Susan B. Anthony, but a rider was passed on an appropriations bill requiring federal funds be used to finish only those heads that had already been started at that time. Keep in mind, back in 1937 the country was still adjusting to the whole idea of women claiming their right to vote, so putting Anthony on the side of a mountain would surely have created a national crisis.  In 1939, the face of Theodore Roosevelt was dedicated and the monument was complete.

I was surprised to learn that initially, the monument was to include a massive entablature (I was also surprised to learn that entablature was a word), that would detail a brief history of the United States.  President Calvin Coolidge was to write the essay that would be carved, but he and Borglum disagreed on how the history should be worded. Coolidge died in 1933 before any definite wording was decided and so in 1934, a national essay contest was launched by the Hearst newspapers to select a “History of the United States” to carve on the mountain. All contestants had to use the same nine dates for their time lines and the overall winner was John Edward Bradley.  The text of that essay can be found here.  I am sure that for its time, it would have been considered a fine work.  Through the lens of a more modern understanding of our nation’s history however, I find it reads more as a monument to the folly of carving our shared history in stone, particularly when the wording is chosen by a corporate contest, and when the passage of time has offered us a broader understanding of historical context. Also, predetermining the eight dates in U.S. history around which the essay would be focused seems a little bit to me like leading the witness.  At any rate, work began on the entablature carving in 1934 with the year “1776”.  Inconsistencies in the rock were encountered in the original proposed placement of the Jefferson figure however, and so that was moved to the area to the right of Washington, and plans for the massive entablature were scrapped.

Today, the monument benefits from the completion of extensive visitor facilities and sidewalks in 1998, and the relatively recent cleanup of the face of the monument in 2005.  Doane Robinson’s original vision to increase South Dakota’s tourism has definitely been a success; Mount Rushmore receives about 2.4 million visits annually.  


Overall impression:  In addition to daytime viewing, which honestly can be done in about fifteen minutes (including a stop at the facilities,) there is an audio tour with a less smarty pants version of the history than I have provided above, as well as exhibits and special events in the summer season. You can also stick around for the evening lighting ceremony, if that’s something that appeals to you. As for my overall impression; I saw it, and it’s checked off my bucket list, but the nearby Crazy Horse Monument is far more interesting.

Costs:  There is no entry fee to the Monument, however there is a $10 parking fee for cars and RVs, with a 50% discount for senior citizens (you’ll have to pay this because there’s no pull out parking anywhere and the traffic is carefully directed).  There is a cafe on site with limited offerings, ice cream stands in the summer, and a wall of vending machines.  The visitor’s center also has a small selection of books and memorabilia for sale.

2 thoughts on “Mount Rushmore National Monument

  1. As always I love your obseravations.
    Your historical information and personal comments are so interesting and enlightening!


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