“The story of Mount Rushmore is a tale full of high hopes, bitter frustration, battling egos, fascinating characters, hard work and triumphant celebrations.” These words are from one of the displays at the memorial's visitor centre. The quote sums up the fourteen years, and over one million dollars, that it took to create this majestic feat.
The mountain sculpture is called The Shrine of Democracy. (that bit of information may come in handy one day at a trivia quiz!) Each head is 18m (60ft) tall.
Four presidents were chosen, each one representing a different American value.
· The nations birth - George Washington (1732 – 1799)
· The nations growth – Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
· The nations development – Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919)
· The nations preservation – Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)
Visiting Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a right of passage for most Americans and a tourist attraction for many overseas travelers. When it opened to the public in late 1941, 393,000 people visited in the first year. This number has steadily climbed and now well over two million people visit the mountain annually. Indeed, it is the state’s number one tourist spot. Perhaps it is the remoteness and accessibility to other places of interest that make it so attractive. The closeness of The Badlands, Custer National Park, Black Hills National Forest, Wind Cave National Park, Crazy Horse Monument, and the Needles Highway means you can visit different types of geography and nature in a short space of time.
As you walk in to see the mountain close up, a paved area is called the Avenue of Flags. Here are displayed the flags of each state and territory of the US. A plaque detailing of the year they joined the state and information about them is brief yet informative. The visitor centre has static displays, short films, and information about the construction as well as the men it immortalizes. A large photograph of the mountain pre-carving adorns a wall, and it is strange to look at the before picture and not see what it became.
The Mount Rushmore monument was originally created to increase tourism to South Dakota’s Black Hills. The site was chosen for both the firmness of the granite and that it received maximum sun exposure as it faced southeast. Half the costs for the project came from private funding, and the government matched this amount.
From 1927 to 1941 sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed this monumental work and his son Lincoln Borglum assisted him with the execution of the project. Gutzon was 58 years old in 1925 when he started the design. This is impressive, as many people start to think of retirement when they reach this age, but Gutzon was just getting started. He died in March 1941, and his son Lincoln continued the carving in his place.
400 workers climbed up 700 steps each day to get to the top, then climbed back down those same 700 steps at the end of the day! They used dynamite 90% of the time to blast 450,000 tonne of rock away. The chief carver was an Italian artisan and stonemason Luigi Del Bianco. A plaque at Mount Rushmore National Monument lists the names of all the workers.
There were no fatalities at the site, despite the dangerous conditions and use of dynamite. A film at the visitors centre, and static displays show the materials and processes used on the mountainside. There are also explanations of how and why the carvings were made.
Cracks have appeared in the carving, due to the instability of some of the rock formations. Mountain climbers seal cracks regularly, including replacing sealant that Borglum used. As technology has increased over the years, his original dust, oil and lead mixture is being replaced with a silicone substitution.
A grand Hall of Records that was meant to be carved behind the heads could not be created due to the same problems. There has been discussions of adding other famous American heads to the display, but again, the rock is too unstable to be carved any further. Notable names that have been mentioned include Susan B. Anthony, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
A most impressive feature of each face is the eyes. The life-like expressions were created using a refined treatment. Concave depressions were carved. The dark shadow that formed in the depression gave the impression of depth. Then twenty inch long granite shafts were projected from the socket, its front surface ground smooth to reflect light.
President Roosevelts pince-nez also created a few problems, and he was the most difficult of the four men to carve. A curved ridge was carved under a part of the eye giving the illusion of eye glasses.
Entry to the monument is free. There is a charge for car parking. Food and drink is available in the onsite cafe and restaurant. A gift shop and book store are also onsite.
Of course, like all places of interest now, it is almost obligatory to take a selfie. I overheard another tourist state whilst getting their photo taken "five heads are better than four!" Quite funny, in a strange kind of way.
There is ongoing controversy as the land the monument sits on was stolen from the Sioux Nation in the 1870s. The US Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that the Nation required just compensation, amounting to around 102 million dollars. The Sioux refused the money and demanded the return of the land. This conflict is still ongoing.
Another mountain monument in the Black Hills is being carved to represent the Native American Crazy Horse. That project has been ongoing for seventy-five years and is yet to be completed. Crazy Horse receives no government funding. I found the Crazy Horse monument to be extraordinary, but that is a story for another day.
When in the area, I also recommend visiting: