The History of Mount Rushmore
October 26, 2020

Doane Robinson had “an idea as bold, brilliant, beautiful, and as fragile as a rainbow in the western sky” that somewhere in the vicinity of the Needles, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a monument of gigantic proportions could be carved, perhaps the likenesses of Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, John C. Fremont, or other great heroes of western history.  He felt that such an attraction would bring thousands of tourists to the area and give a much-needed boost to South Dakota’s economy.

Robinson wrote to Gutzon Borglum in 1924 inviting him to come to the Black Hills to see if there was a site suitable for carving such a monument.  At this time, Borglum was already a popular sculptor and was involved in a project of similar proportions in Stone Mountain, Georgia.  This project proved to many that he was not afraid of the challenge of carving a mountain.

In September of 1924, Borglum, several guides, and many prominent South Dakotans spent a day on horseback or foot traveling through the granite “Needles.”  Even though Borglum thought that particular area was not right for the carving, he was still very much interested in the project.  He came back the following August to explore the entire Harney Range, and finally settled on the peak known as Mount Rushmore.  The mountain had everything he was looking for-it was a gigantic mountain of solid granite, towered above the surrounding peaks but separated from them, and faced the southeast-perfect for maximum sunlight.

It was decided that the concept of “heroes of western history” was too regionally circumscribed.  Borglum felt that a memorial of this magnitude should have meaning for all citizens of the country, that it should be dedicated to American culture and civilization.  The final concept was “a memorial-not to individuals, but to the founding, preservation, growth, and development of the nation, as embodied in four presidents who had never lost sight of the simple concept on which it was founded: ‘Man has a right to be free and to be happy.’”

The first drilling on the mountain was celebrated on August 10, 1927 with guest speaker President Coolidge.  Borglum was lowered in a harness to ceremonially launch the work by drilling the first “points” for the face of Washington.  On July 4th, 1930, the first face, that of President Washington, was unveiled.  This unveiling led to renewed enthusiasm for the project and increased determination to see it completed.  The phrase, “shrine of democracy” came into being during a speech at this dedication.

On August 30, 1936 the head of President Jefferson was unveiled with special guest President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering an impromptu speech.  Then on September 17, 1937 came the dedication of the Lincoln head, the date being the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution.   The speakers for that ceremony included Nebraska Senator Edward R Burke and Gutzon Borglum.  Finally, on July 2, 1939 President Roosevelt’s head was unveiled, which was also the occasion of the 50th anniversary of South Dakota’s statehood.  A final dedication was originally planned for 1941, but since Borglum had recently passed away and a war was imminent, it was postponed several times and then forgotten altogether.  It wasn’t until July 3, 1991 that President George Bush presided at a formal dedication of the memorial combined with the celebration of Mount Rushmore’s 50th year.

At one time there were plans for a “Hall of Records” behind the four heads that would include a brief history of the United State in three languages, aluminum plates containing important historical documents including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, busts of famous personages, and a list of U.S. contributions to the world in science, industry, and the arts.  Lack of time and funds eventually halted work on the hall.  

Borglum was convinced that the hall was necessary to complete the memorial.  As he put it, “the hall would be like a ‘caption’ or ‘signature.’  It would tell of the civilization that produced and molded the presidents whose faces were carved into the mountain and tell the history of the nation to that date.”  To him, it was unthinkable that any monument, especially one that would last well over 100,000 years, should not have a label and inscription, or at least an explanation.  He often referred to such perplexing mysteries as the Easter Island heads and said that as an advanced civilization we owed it to future generations to leave definitive records.  At one time a bill providing for the hall did pass Congress, but an appropriation for it was never made.   However, Borglum’s carefully detailed plans are still in existence.

Today, Mount Rushmore is administered by the National Park Service and attracts nearly 3 million visitors each year.  It does in fact provide a major economic boost each year to the state of South Dakota, just as Doane Robinson, Senator Norbeck, Congressmen Williamson and Case, and the many others who so staunchly stood behind the project for so many years had envisioned.

Information for this blog came from the book “Mount Rushmore: The Story Behind the Scenery” written by Gutzon Borglum’s son, Lincoln Borglum.  To read more, this book can be purchased at the Custer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.

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