Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore in southwestern South Dakota. The sculptures are 60-foot high heads of former United States presidents (from left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial covers 1,278 acres and is over a mile above sea level. The Avenue of States (shown above) is a pedestrian walkway that leads from the concession area to the Grand View Terrace. Fourteen pillars line the avenue with a total of 56 flags: one for each state, district, commonwealth, and territory of the United States. Each flagpole has a plaque carved into the pillar that indicates when the state entered the Union.
Mount Rushmore was sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum, his son Lincoln Borglum, and over 400 workers from 1927 through 1941. The total cost was just under one million dollars of mostly federal funds and some private donations.
South Dakota historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of carving famous people into the Black Hills of South Dakota to promote tourism in the region. Gutzon Borglum chose the Mount Rushmore location because it’s the tallest mountain in the region, faces southeast for maximum sun exposure, and had an adequate amount of granite required to carve the large figures. Borglum also decided the sculpture should have a national focus, and he chose which four presidents would be carved into the mountain.
George Washington (1732-1799) was our nation’s first president and served from 1789-1797. Washington earned the title as “Father of his Country.” As commander of the Continental Army, he formed and led a fighting force that won independence from Great Britain in 1775. As President of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he helped form the world’s greatest democracy that has lasted for 235 years. Two years later, he was unanimously elected President of the United States and served two terms. When he was offered a third term and the title of King, Washington rejected it, thereby establishing an unwritten precedent of a maximum of two terms for a U.S. president that was eventually integrated into the Constitution with the 22nd Amendment.
“It is but natural that such a design should begin with George Washington, for with him begins that which is truly characteristic of America. He represents our independence, our Constitution, our liberty. He formed the highest aspirations that were entertained by any people into the permanent institutions of our Government. He stands as the foremost disciple of ordered liberty, a statesman with an inspired vision who is not outranked by any mortal greatness.” ~President Calvin Coolidge, August 10, 1927
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was an American Founding Father and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also our third President of the United States, serving from 1801-1809. Yet Borglum chose him mostly because he had the foresight to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, more than doubling the size of our young republic and paving the way for the great western expansion. Jefferson had strong beliefs in the rights of man, a government derived from the people for the people, freedom of religion and separation of church and state, and education available to all.
Jefferson’s head was initially carved to the left of Washington as you look at Mount Rushmore, but about halfway through it was determined there was not enough granite to complete the figure, so his face was literally blasted away with dynamite and moved to the right of Washington. Partway through carving Jefferson’s head in the new position, a large crack in the granite was found to be running through his nose. Borglum had to reset Jefferson’s head five degrees to the north, back four feet, and tilt the head about 18 inches. You can see the remains of the crack cutting down the right eye, past the nose and upper lip, and through the middle of the chin.
“Next to (Washington) will come Thomas Jefferson, whose wisdom insured that the Government which Washington had formed should be entrusted to the administration of the people. He emphasized the element of self-government which had been enshrined in American institutions in such a way as to demonstrate that it was practical and would be permanent. In him, likewise, embodied the spirit of expansion. Recognizing the destiny of this Country, he added to its territory. By removing the possibility of any powerful opposition from a neighboring state, he gave new guaranties to the rule of the people.” ~President Calvin Coolidge, August 10, 1927
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the 26th President of the United States, serving from 1901-1909. Borglum chose Roosevelt because he influenced the construction of the Panama Canal and built a powerful U.S. Navy, both of which helped establish the United States as a world power. Roosevelt also engineered the peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Closest to our hearts, Roosevelt was perhaps the greatest conservationist in the history of mankind. Roosevelt preserved more than 234 million acres, created the National Forest Service, established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, and 150 national forests. Roosevelt favored using America’s natural resources, but opposed wasteful consumption.
Roosevelt was the most controversial of the four figures because it had only been a few decades since he had served and many felt his place in history was not yet determined. Borglum had personally known and admired Roosevelt and had done a bust of the President that was later used as a model for his Mount Rushmore figure. Roosevelt once said, “If a monument is ever put up of me, I hope Gutzon Borglum makes it.” The carving of Roosevelt was the most difficult, as 75 feet of overlying rock had to be blasted away before enough granite suitable for carving was found, which is why Roosevelt’s head seems to be set so far back from the other three.
“That the principles for which these three men stood might be still more firmly established destiny raised up Theodore Roosevelt. To political freedom he strove to add economic freedom. By building the Panama Canal he brought into closer relationship the east and the west and realized the vision that inspired Columbus in his search for a new passage to the Orient.” ~President Calvin Coolidge, August 10, 1927
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the United States, serving from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. Upon his election as President, seven states of the lower south seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. At his inauguration, Lincoln vowed to do whatever was necessary to preserve the Union. The Confederates responded by attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, thus starting the Civil War. Lincoln called for Union troops to put down the rebellion. In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free all slaves, thus raising the war to a higher moral plane. In 1965, Lincoln helped craft the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery.
“After our country had been established, enlarged from sea to sea, and was dedicated to popular government, the next great task was to demonstrate the permanency of our Union and to extend the principle of freedom to all inhabitants of our land. The master of this supreme accomplishment was Abraham Lincoln. Above all other national figures, he holds the love of his fellow countrymen. The work which Washington and Jefferson began, he extended to its logical conclusion.” ~President Calvin Coolidge, August 10, 1927
If you follow this blog, you’ll have figured out by now that man-made things are not our interest on this trip. However, the unique combination of nature and humanity in Mount Rushmore turned out to be far more compelling than we had expected. Check out the trees in the photo above to gain a sense of the immensity of these carvings.
The pupils of the eyes are made from granite shafts about 20” long and polished smooth to reflect the light. It took incredible skill and techniques like this for Borglum to turn the hard rock of a mountain into such life-like representations of these great men.
In front of a steakhouse in the nearby town of Hermosa stand the busts of three modern presidents: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. It may be too soon, but I doubt history will judge these three presidents on the same higher plane as the four on Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore is not without controversy beyond the choice of which Presidents should be honored. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 provided the Lakota tribe with exclusive use of the Black Hills region. But a gold rush in the late 1860s drew a large number of miners and settlers to the region, and by the early 1870s the rush became a flood of prospectors, and the U.S. government was unable keep them all out. Eventually Mount Rushmore and the surrounding area was seized from the Lakota tribe after the Great Sioux War of 1876. The Lakota consider Mount Rushmore to be sacred, and many tribe members consider the carvings to be a desecration.
This great country–a beacon of light and hope for the rest of the world–has certainly had its own dark past. Genocide and displacement of native Americans, slavery, discrimination, and unjust wars are some of the disgraceful chapters in American history. And our current hyper-partisan divided citizenry and special-interest beholden ineffectual Congress don’t exactly inspire confidence in our future. But these four great men carved in the solid granite behind me represent the hope and promise that is America. After visiting the museum, listening to the audio tour, and gazing upon this incredible sculpture, I couldn’t help but feel patriotic pride in the positive things our country has accomplished and the possibility of what good may still come for our nation and the world. If you’re ever feeling down about America, just check out this article: America has made the world freer, safer and wealthier.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”