This week (Oct. 4) in 1927 work began on one of the largest and most famous sculptures in the world, as sculptor Gutzon Borglum began the 14-year project to carve the faces of four American presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, into the side of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The original idea for a giant sculpture was Doane Robinson’s, a local historian who thought an imposing historic monument somewhere in the Black Hills would attract tourists, and although South Dakota state officials originally wanted sculptures of western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Borglum convinced them that national heroes such as U.S. presidents would be more appropriate (and attract more visitors).
Originally, Borglum had just three presidents in mind — Lincoln, his favorite president, whom Borglum credited with saving the Union; Washington, who won the revolution that created our nation; and Jefferson, whose purchase of the Louisiana Territory had made much of the west, including South Dakota, part of the United States. However, Borglum soon realized there was room for one more president, so he chose Teddy Roosevelt, whom he considered the nation’s first environmentalist.
It was Borglum who also ultimately decided on Mt. Rushmore as the site. He liked Rushmore’s tall granite peaks and he liked that the mountain faced southeast, meaning the sun would be on the sculptures most of the day.
To say the least, the project was a challenge. Approximately 90 percent of the sculpture was carved using dynamite — some 450,000 tons of rock were removed before sculptors with drills, hammers and chisels would put the finishing touches on the faces. Working conditions also were a challenge, as temperatures ranged from 90 degrees in the summer to below freezing in the winter, and most workers did their jobs while dangling from harnesses hundreds of feet in the air. Amazingly, there were no project-related deaths.
George Washington’s was the first face completed. Thomas Jefferson was second, and although he was originally chiseled to the right of Washington, within two years Jefferson’s face had cracked so badly that workers had to blast it off the mountain and start over, eventually carving Jefferson to Washington’s left, where he is today. Lincoln was next, his face completed in 1937, with Teddy Roosevelt completed in 1939.
Two years later, in October of 1941, Mt. Rushmore was finally finished, having cost approximately $1 million, and although Borglum had died seven months earlier, his son Lincoln (named after dad’s favorite president), saw the project through.
Today, during the summer, 20,000 people visit Mt. Rushmore daily. Since Borglum estimated his sculpture would last 100,000 years, that amounts to quite a lot of tourists — and tourist dollars.