Celebrating Mount Rushmore's Super-Sized and Quirky History

This iconic American monument has a fascinating history.

The colossal monument that towers over the Black Hills in South Dakota turns 75 in 2016.

The 60-foot-tall faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were completed in 1941, and they attract more than two million visitors each year, according to the National Park Service.

To honor the 75th anniversary on October 31, 2016, we've dug up the history of this iconic, satirized, beloved monument along with some interesting facts. Much of this history was provided by the National Park Service and the Rapid City (South Dakota) Tourism & Visitors Bureau.

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota

History of Mount Rushmore

The height of each presidential face on Mount Rushmore is 60 feet, beginning at the chin—the equivalent of a six-story building. If each carving were a statue, the statues would stand at 465 feet tall. 

Construction began in 1927 and was finished on Oct. 31, 1941. The monument was going to be much larger with the presidents carved from head to waist but insufficient funding, along with the U.S. entry into World War II, forced the carving to end.

Ninety percent of the heads were carved with dynamite while jackhammers and chisels were used only in the detailing. Roughly 450,000 tons of granite were removed with dynamite. After blasting away most of the granite, the workers used a process called honeycombing to get the fine details. During honeycombing, workers drilled holes in the rock close to each other then broke away the rock, sometimes by hand. Holes of varying depths gave the desired look when the excess stone was removed.

The mountain is named after Charles E. Rushmore, a lawyer from New York. He was sent to South Dakota to check legal titles on property around the Black Hills in 1884. According to a letter written by Rushmore himself, the young lawyer asked the name of the mountain and one of the men with him said it had none. "We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak," the man said. And the name stuck.

Historian Doane Robinson had the idea for Mount Rushmore's monument in 1923 to promote tourism in South Dakota. According to many accounts, Robinson wanted the mountain to feature Western heroes such as Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody. 

President Calvin Coolidge, who signed off on the project, insisted that George Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed.

In 1924, Robinson persuaded sculptor Gutzon Borglum to meet him in South Dakota to discuss the carving. Borglum had been involved in sculpting the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, but was in a disagreement with officials there. In fact, he was fired from the project so he destroyed his models and the work was delayed. A warrant was issued for Borglum's arrest and he fled the state.

Behind the sculpture of Lincoln, Borglum began blasting a Hall of Records. He planned the hall to be a grand room that would house the nation’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The exact plan never came to be—Congress threatened to cut funding unless it was used only for the sculpture.

Thomas Jefferson’s face on Mount Rushmore was originally started on the opposite side of George Washington, but after 18 months of carving, workers realized the granite was too weak. Jefferson's face was then dynamited off and carved on the other side.

While Borglum was working on the monument, Congress rejected a bill that would have added Susan B. Anthony's likeness—to honor her role as a social reformer and women's-rights activist—to the monument.

In the 1950s and '60s, Sioux Indian Benjamin Black Elk posed for photographs with thousands of tourists at Mount Rushmore. Because of this, he became one of the most photographed people in the world at the time.

While the actual Declaration of Independence and Constitution never made it to the monument, in 1998, 16 porcelain enamel panels with those texts, biographies of the four presidents—and Borglum's biography—in addition to a history of the nation were placed in a vault within the cave.

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota

Mount Rushmore by the Numbers

George Washington's nose, at 21 feet, is one foot longer than the nose of each of the other presidents.

The final price tag was less than $1 million—the total cost was actually $989,992.32, roughly $14.4 million now—which included wages for 400 workers. The average worker's salary on Mount Rushmore was 45-75 cents an hour. The chief carver, Luigi Del Bianco, was paid $1.50 an hour.

For a carving of its size, a low number of injuries was reported and no deaths by onsite accidents were reported during the 14 years of construction.

Mount Rushmore

Did You Know?

At Legoland in California, there is a model of Mount Rushmore made of Legos, complete with miniature figures cleaning one of George Washington’s ears with a giant cotton swab.

According to the National Park Service, Mount Rushmore has appeared in more television shows and films than the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx combined. The monument famously appeared in the final chase scene at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." The National Park Service would not allow him to film live actors around the faces, so footage of Mount Rushmore was superimposed behind Cary Grant and Eva Maria Saint, who were filmed in a studio.  

Mount Rushmore once sponsored a baseball team that played other regional teams. Borglum and his son, Lincoln, were known to hire workers just because they could play baseball. A majority of the new hires could play the game but had no skills usable for carving a mountain. Often, Borglum was away during the sculpting of the mountain. While it was being completed, he made a sculpture of Thomas Paine in Paris and Woodrow Wilson in Poland. His son supervised the work on Mount Rushmore during his absence.

Maintenance of the memorial annually requires mountain climbers to monitor and seal cracks. The memorial is not cleaned to remove moss. It has been cleaned once: On July 8, 2005, Kärcher GmbH, a German manufacturer of cleaning machines, cleaned it for free with pressure washers.

Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum

Dustin Turner
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