The Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota – history and facts

Mount Rushmore, an enduring symbol of American history and artistry, holds countless stories within its grandeur. This iconic American landmark has captivated the world with its colossal sculptures of four revered presidents. In this article, we embark on an exploration of Mount Rushmore’s captivating allure.

We begin by uncovering the geographical and geological wonders that surround this renowned site, delving into its location, terrain, and unique geological features. Then, we trace the historical roots that led to the conception of this audacious project, revealing the visionary minds behind its creation.

Next, we delve into the remarkable craftsmanship that brought the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to life. Discover the intricate carving techniques employed, the challenges faced, and the meticulous details that make each president’s visage a masterpiece.

Beyond its construction, we explore the history of Mount Rushmore in the years following its completion, unraveling the impact it has had on American culture and its portrayal in movies. Moreover, we unravel the enigmatic allure of the Hall of Records, a secret room hidden within the mountain’s depths. Finally, we address the question that often arises: Can another face ever be added to this iconic monument?

Join us on a captivating journey as we unravel the captivating tales, hidden treasures, and enduring legacy of Mount Rushmore. From its geological wonders to the cultural significance it holds, this article offers a comprehensive exploration of one of America’s most treasured landmarks.

Mount Rushmore location, geology, climate, vegetation and animals

Mount Rushmore is situated in Pennington County, South Dakota, near the city of Keystone. Its precise coordinates are approximately 43°52’44″N latitude and 103°27’35″W longitude. The monument occupies an area of 1,278 acres, equivalent to 5.17 square kilometers. Nestled within the picturesque landscape of the Black Hills region, Mount Rushmore stands as a prominent landmark in the heart of the United States.

Mount Rushmore rests on the northwest edge of the Black Elk Peak granite batholith, showcasing the geologic formations of the region. The batholith’s molten rock intruded into pre-existing mica schist rocks around 1.6 billion years ago during the Proterozoic era. Light-colored streaks on the presidents’ foreheads are caused by coarse grained pegmatite dikes associated with the granite intrusion.

Over time, the Black Hills granites experienced erosion during the Neoproterozoic era and were later covered by sediments during the Cambrian period. The Paleozoic era saw their continued burial, only to be exposed once again during the Laramide orogeny approximately 70 million years ago.

The Black Hills area subsequently uplifted, forming an elongated geologic dome. Through erosion, the granite was uncovered, while the softer adjacent schist was eroded, leaving traces below Washington’s sculpture.

Mount Rushmore was selected by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for its ideal characteristics. The mountain’s smooth, fine-grained granite is highly durable, eroding at a rate of merely 1 inch every 10,000 years. Its elevation of 5,725 feet above sea level and southeastern orientation provide ample sunlight throughout the day, aiding the construction process.

The region surrounding Mount Rushmore experiences a dry-winter humid continental climate. It falls within USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5a, capable of withstanding temperatures as low as -20 °F (-29 °C). May and June are the wettest months, often accompanied by intense afternoon thunderstorms caused by orographic lift.

The average annual precipitation is around 18 inches (460 mm), sustaining diverse flora and fauna. Trees and plants control surface runoff, while geological features like dikes, seeps, and springs create watering spots and aquifers.

The vegetation near Mount Rushmore consists primarily of coniferous trees, notably ponderosa pines, along with species like bur oak, Black Hills spruce, and cottonwood at lower elevations.

Shrubs and wildflowers, including snapdragons, sunflowers, and violets, add vibrant colors to the landscape. As the elevation increases, plant life becomes scarcer, and only a small percentage of the plant species found in the Black Hills region are native to the area.

The wildlife in the Mount Rushmore area mirrors that of the broader Black Hills region. Birds such as vultures, eagles, hawks, and swifts soar around the monument and nest in its ledges.

Various terrestrial mammals, including squirrels, raccoons, deer, elk, bison, and more, inhabit the surrounding forests and grasslands. Reptiles and amphibians, like frogs and snakes, also thrive in the area. Streams within the memorial sustain fish species like the longnose dace and brook trout.

Why is Mount Rushmore called the Six Grandfathers?

The area encompassing Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills, known as Pahá Sápa, holds great spiritual significance for Plains Indians such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota Sioux.

These tribes revered the area for countless centuries, utilizing it as a sacred space for prayer and gathering essential resources such as food, building materials, and medicinal plants. The Lakota people specifically referred to the mountain as “Six Grandfathers” (Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe), symbolizing ancestral deities represented by the six cardinal directions: north, south, east, west, sky, and earth.

However, the latter half of the 19th century brought about conflicts as the United States expanded into the Black Hills, leading to the Sioux Wars. In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the U.S. government acknowledged the Sioux’s exclusive and perpetual rights to the entire Black Hills region, including Six Grandfathers.

During the early 1870s, Lakota leader Black Elk embarked on a significant spiritual journey that ultimately led him to Black Elk Peak (Hiŋháŋ Káǧa, “Making of Owls”), located nearby Six Grandfathers.

U.S. General George Armstrong Custer later ascended Black Elk Peak during the Black Hills Expedition of 1874, igniting the Black Hills Gold Rush and the Great Sioux War of 1876. Unfortunately, in 1877, the U.S. violated the Treaty of Fort Laramie, asserting control over the area and resulting in a wave of settlers and prospectors.

Among these prospectors was James Wilson, a mining promoter from New York, who organized the Harney Peak Tin Company. He hired Charles E. Rushmore, a New York attorney, to verify the company’s land claims in the Black Hills.

During Rushmore’s visit in either 1884 or 1885, he encountered Six Grandfathers and inquired about its name from his guide, Bill Challis. Challis responded that the mountain had no name but suggested it be named after Rushmore himself. From that point forward, the name “Mount Rushmore” became locally accepted and was officially recognized by the United States Board of Geographic Names in June 1930.

Thus, the historical and cultural significance of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills as a sacred site for Plains Indians endures, despite the transformation of the mountain into a renowned national memorial. The rich legacy and spiritual connections to the land are an integral part of its enduring heritage.

Whose idea was it to create a sculpture on Mount Rushmore?

The Carvings on Mount Rushmore would never have existed without the contribution of Doane Robinson, often referred to as the “Father of Mount Rushmore.” In the 1920s, South Dakota had become a popular tourist destination, and Robinson sought to further boost tourism to the state.

Inspired by the ongoing project of carving Confederate generals on Stone Mountain in Georgia, he proposed a similar monument that would showcase the triumph of civilization over the local geography.

Initially, Robinson approached sculptor Lorado Taft, but due to Taft’s illness and lack of interest, he turned to U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck for support. Norbeck cautiously backed Robinson’s plan and helped promote it.

However, the proposal faced significant opposition from the local community. Undeterred, Robinson reached out to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of the Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain, to assess the feasibility of the project. Borglum, who had been involved with the Ku Klux Klan but had disagreements with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, traveled to South Dakota to meet with Robinson.

Initially, Borglum planned to carve the monument into the Needles, towering granite pillars in the Black Hills. However, the erosion of the Needles made them unsuitable for sculpting.

During his search for an alternative location, Borglum summited Black Elk Peak and, upon seeing Mount Rushmore, declared that “America will march along that skyline.” Mount Rushmore’s grandeur and southeast-facing orientation, ensuring maximum exposure to the sun, convinced Borglum that it was the ideal location.

Borglum deviated from Robinson’s original plan to depict characters from the Old West and instead proposed carving the faces of four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The intention was to symbolize an achievement born and created by Americans for Americans. However, this choice faced objections from the Lakota and other local indigenous communities, who saw it as desecration of their sacred lands and a reminder of the injustices they endured under the U.S. government.

With the support of Senator Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson, bills were introduced to secure permission to use federal land. Despite some challenges, both federal and South Dakota legislation eventually passed, allowing the project to move forward.

Private funding was slow, but an August 1927 dedication ceremony, attended by President Calvin Coolidge, brought a promise of federal funding. Congress passed the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Act, signed by Coolidge, which authorized matching funds of up to $250,000. However, initial federal funding was delayed until 1929 due to the presidential transition to Herbert Hoover.

Mount Rushmore construction (1927 – 1941)

The monumental task of carving Mount Rushmore spanned from October 4, 1927, to October 31, 1941, led by renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum and a team of 400 workers. The colossal carvings of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln stand at a towering 60 feet (18 meters) to represent the first 150 years of American history. Borglum specifically chose these presidents for their significant roles in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory.

The carving process of Mount Rushmore involved the use of dynamite, followed by a technique known as “honeycombing.” Workers drilled closely spaced holes, allowing small pieces of rock to be removed by hand.

Remarkably, there were no fatalities during the construction, a testament to the skill and expertise of the workers. In total, approximately 450,000 short tons (410,000 metric tons) of rock were blasted off the mountainside to shape the iconic faces.

Luigi Del Bianco, an artisan and stonemason from Italy, served as the chief carver of the mountain. His understanding of sculptural language and ability to convey emotion through the carved portraits made him an invaluable member of the team. Del Bianco’s contribution added a unique artistic touch to the project.

In 1933, the National Park Service took over the management of Mount Rushmore, and Julian Spotts played a significant role in improving the project’s infrastructure. Under his guidance, the tram was upgraded to transport workers more easily to the top of the mountain.

The dedication of George Washington’s face took place on July 4, 1934, followed by Thomas Jefferson’s face in 1936 and Abraham Lincoln’s on September 17, 1937. Theodore Roosevelt’s face was dedicated in 1939, completing the monumental sculpture.

Tragically, Gutzon Borglum passed away from an embolism in March 1941, leaving his son, Lincoln Borglum, to continue his father’s work. Ultimately, the entire project cost approximately $989,992.32, equivalent to $19.7 million in 2022.

Mount Rushmore stands today as a testament to the immense skill, dedication, and artistic vision of those who brought this remarkable monument to life.

Carving of the presidents on Mount Rushmore

The carving process at Mount Rushmore commenced with the head of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, Washington’s head was successfully completed within a relatively short span of seven years.

On Independence Day in 1934, the sculpture was unveiled and dedicated to the public. A notable tradition emerged during the unveiling, as a large American flag was placed over Washington’s head before its grand reveal. This tradition continued for the subsequent heads of the presidents.

Following the completion of Washington’s head, attention turned to Thomas Jefferson, who was originally positioned to the right of Washington. However, due to unfavorable rock quality, sculptor Borglum made the decision to blast off Jefferson’s incomplete head.

Undeterred, the carving of Jefferson’s head recommenced, this time on the left side of Washington’s head. In 1936, the sculpture of Thomas Jefferson was finally dedicated, showcasing his esteemed presence alongside the founding father.

Abraham Lincoln’s head proved to be the most intricate and challenging part of the project, primarily due to the detailed carving of his distinctive beard. Nevertheless, the sculptors overcame the difficulties and successfully completed Lincoln’s head, placing it on the far right of the cliff.

A momentous occasion took place on September 17, 1937, precisely 150 years after the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787, as Lincoln’s face was officially dedicated, symbolizing his enduring legacy in American history.

Simultaneously, while Theodore Roosevelt’s head was taking shape, essential facilities for tourists began to emerge. These developments included the construction of accommodations with modern amenities such as plumbing and lighting, as well as the establishment of a visitor center.

The search for suitable rock for Roosevelt’s head led the sculptors to cut deeper into the mountain, raising concerns about the extent of excavation. However, these challenges were overcome, and on July 2, 1939, the sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt’s head was dedicated, adding his presence to the majestic ensemble of presidents.

Throughout the process, Mount Rushmore underwent significant developments to accommodate the influx of visitors, ensuring they could appreciate the remarkable sculptures and the surrounding area. The completion of each president’s head marked a milestone in the carving journey, intertwining the rich history of the United States with the natural splendor of the Black Hills.

History of Mount Rushmore after completion

Borglum had ambitious plans for Mount Rushmore, including carving the figures from head to waist and creating a massive panel shaped like the Louisiana Purchase. This panel would have featured gilded letters depicting significant historical events and territorial acquisitions. However, insufficient funding forced the project to end prematurely.

The Sculptor’s Studio, built in 1939 under Borglum’s direction, now serves as a display showcasing unique plaster models and tools related to the sculpting process.

The original visitor center of Mount Rushmore, designed by Harold Spitznagel and Cecil Doty, was completed in 1957 as part of the Mission 66 initiative, which aimed to enhance visitor facilities at national parks and monuments throughout the United States.

Over ten years of redevelopment work, the site underwent significant improvements, and in 1998, extensive visitor facilities and sidewalks were completed, including the Visitor Center, the Lincoln Borglum Museum, and the Presidential Trail.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Benjamin Black Elk, a local Lakota Sioux elder and the son of medicine man Black Elk, gained recognition as the “Fifth Face of Mount Rushmore.” Dressed in his traditional attire, Black Elk posed for photographs with thousands of tourists daily, becoming one of the most photographed individuals in the world during that period, as noted by the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Mount Rushmore was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.

In 1973, an essay written by William Andrew Burkett, a student from Nebraska, was affixed to the Entablature at Mount Rushmore. Burkett’s 500-word essay, which offered a comprehensive account of the history of the United States, had emerged as the winning entry in a competition held in 1934 specifically for college-age participants.

In 1991, President George H. W. Bush officially dedicated Mount Rushmore, underscoring its importance as a national symbol. Fourteen years later, Gerard Baker became the park’s superintendent, making history as the first and, to date, the only Native American to hold this role. Baker expressed his commitment to providing diverse interpretations of the site, emphasizing that the four presidents’ presence represents just one avenue of understanding within the broader context of American history.

The passing of Nick Clifford, the last surviving carver, in November 2019 at the age of 98, marked the end of an era. Clifford had worked at Mount Rushmore from 1938 to 1940, earning a wage of 55 cents per hour. Reflecting on his involvement in the project, Clifford expressed his deep appreciation, describing Mount Rushmore as the greatest endeavor he had ever been a part of.

The Hall of Records or the Mount Rushmore secret room

Hidden behind Lincoln’s head lies a secret room, a testament to Borglum’s dedication. The vault, which Borglum intended as a testament to the nation’s history, was to be accompanied by an 800-foot stairway adorned with a colossal bronze eagle boasting a 38-foot wingspan.

Above the eagle, an inscription reading “America’s Onward March” and “The Hall of Records” would serve as a beacon. The chamber’s walls would recount America’s nine most crucial events from 1776 to 1906, while busts of illustrious Americans and a catalog of the nation’s contributions to art, science, and industry would line its halls.

Although Borglum’s untimely demise in 1941 prevented his vision from being fully realized, his dream of a vault preserving America’s history was revived by monument officials in 1998.

Today, visitors can marvel at the meticulously sculpted porcelain enamel panels, which chronicle the story and history of Mount Rushmore, alongside an elucidation of why Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln were chosen as the monument’s subjects.

These panels also feature the immortal words of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, while a biography of the artist Borglum provides additional insight. All these treasures find their sanctuary within a titanium repository, safeguarded behind the imposing 1,200-pound granite slab.

Although the chamber remains inaccessible to tourists, its impenetrability ensures that, regardless of the cataclysms that future millennia may bring, the history of America remains securely nestledbehind the head of Honest Abe, perpetually safeguarded for generations to come.

Can another face be added to Mount Rushmore?

In 1937, a bill supporting the addition of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony to Mount Rushmore failed to pass in Congress. The completion of the sculpture in 1941 marked the determination that the remaining rock was unsuitable for further carvings.

This conclusion was reinforced by RESPEC, an engineering firm responsible for assessing the rock’s stability in 1989. According to them, no other rock near the existing faces is suitable for additional carving. Moreover, exposing new surfaces could potentially compromise the stability of the existing carving.

However, despite these findings, proposals for additional sculptures have been put forth over the years. Among them were suggestions for John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963, and Ronald Reagan in 1985 and 1999, with the latter proposal even sparking a congressional debate at the time. In 2008, Barack Obama was asked about the possibility of his own addition, to which he humorously remarked that his ears were too large.

Notably, former President Donald Trump has expressed interest in having his likeness on the mountain. During a 2017 rally, he jokingly posed the question to the audience, knowing that the media might misinterpret his remarks. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem referred to it as Trump’s “dream” in 2018.

However, according to Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the public information officer at Mount Rushmore, there is no available space for further carving on the sculpture. McGee-Ballinger clarified that any perceived empty areas near Washington or Lincoln are either an optical illusion or non-carvable surfaces.

Interestingly, the history of Mount Rushmore involves changes in the lineup of presidents. Originally, Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, intended to place Thomas Jefferson before Washington. However, due to unsuitable rock conditions, Jefferson had to be relocated, leaving behind additional worked rock. An inscription shaped like the Louisiana Purchase was abandoned as well.

The memorial was originally sculpted by Borglum to represent the first 150 years of American history, and to symbolize the birth, growth, and preservation of the country. McGee-Ballinger emphasized that the sculpture stands as one man’s artistic interpretation and tribute to that specific period in the nation’s history, and altering an artist’s vision is not deemed appropriate.

Therefore, the National Park Service maintains the position that the work is complete in its present form, and there is no procedure for adding another likeness. Both the integrity of the structure and the artist’s vision are upheld by preserving the sculpture as it stands today.

Mount Rushmore in movies

The iconic Mount Rushmore has captured the imagination of filmmakers and has made numerous appearances in works of fiction. Its fame as a monumental sculpture and popular tourist attraction has cemented its status as a legendary backdrop for storytelling.

The grandeur of Mount Rushmore has been showcased in various films, comic books, and television series, earning its place in Hollywood legend. Alfred Hitchcock’s renowned 1959 film, “North by Northwest,” featured the monument as the location of a thrilling chase scene, captivating audiences with its dramatic setting.

Another notable appearance was in the 2007 film “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” where Mount Rushmore played a pivotal role in the film’s storyline, adding an air of intrigue and adventure.

According to Jessica Gunderson, Mount Rushmore has often been portrayed as a secret hideout, a site for exhilarating chase sequences, or even as the entrance to a city of gold. It has become a symbol that connects national security with individual romance, showcasing the monument’s ability to represent different aspects of the human experience.

The fascination with Mount Rushmore’s symbolic power has made it a prime target for cinematic destruction or alteration. In movies such as “Richie Rich,” “10.5: Apocalypse,” and “Team America: World Police,” the monument falls victim to lasers, earthquakes, terrorist missiles, and even the defacement by filmmakers like Michael Moore.

Cartoonists and advertisers have also embraced Mount Rushmore, often adding famous faces or fictional characters to the monument. The faces of the four presidents have been replaced with movie characters or altered in creative ways, showcasing the versatility of this iconic landmark.

In the film “Superman II,” supervillains General Zod, Ursa, and Non use their superpowers to replace the presidents’ faces with their own, leaving their mark on history. In the animated series “What If…?,” Frost Giants partying with Thor add ice sculptures resembling Loki’s horns to Mount Rushmore, blending Marvel’s mythology with real-world landmarks.

Television shows like “Family Guy” have paid tribute to Mount Rushmore through parodies, such as the episode “North by North Quahog,” which humorously references Hitchcock’s film and culminates in a face-off atop the monument.

Even the finale of the 1994 film “Richie Rich” echoes the climax of “North by Northwest,” as the Rich family’s imitation of Mount Rushmore becomes the setting for their thrilling adventure.

Mount Rushmore’s appearances in movies have transformed it into more than just a monument; it has become a symbol of cinematic grandeur, a canvas for imaginative storytelling, and an integral part of popular culture. Its majestic presence continues to captivate audiences, reminding us of the monument’s enduring significance in the world of entertainment.

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