I started this post right after we got back from South Dakota in September, but wasn’t inspired to complete it until I saw a StoryCorps piece on NPR about one of the stone carvers who helped craft the monument.
growing up, my family was big on road trips and on visiting Sites of Historical Importance (see also: Boston’s Freedom Trail) and Mount Rushmore and western South Dakota were on that list. I must have been … between second and third grads, or so. what I remember most from that trip is washing dishes at our campsite in what seemed an unexpectedly dense coniferous forest. it reminded me a lot of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or northern Wisconsin. also, that the Crazy Horse monument underwhelmed because they’d only completed his forehead and profile of his nose. (also, “Rount Mushmore.”)
one upside to visiting places while young, and returning later, is that appreciation can be twofold. my recollections of Mount Rushmore are vague but rosy and, now that I can place its construction into historical context, I’m rather more impressed.
the massive carving, suggested by Doane Robinson in the early 1920s, sought to entice tourists to the Black Hills. both environmentalists and Native American tribes objected to various proposed locations, but eventually supporters and opponents settled on this mountain (the tallest in the region, renamed for a New York lawyer from the original Lakota name, Six Grandfathers). (for purposes of this post, I’ll forego discussing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and ongoing tensions between the U.S. government and the Lakota people for whom the Black Hills are sacred.) Robinson convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who had lately worked on the face of Robert E. Lee at Stone Mountain, Georgia) to come to the Black Hills to ensure the completion of the project. Borglum died before the completion of the monument, but his son, Lincoln, carried on in his stead.
political and financial wrangling ensued: Congress authorized a commission to oversee the project; President Coolidge insisted that, in addition to President Washington, the monument include two Republicans and one Democrat — Borglum based his final selections on the role the Presidents had on preserving “the Republic” as well as expanding territory for said Republic.
between the start of construction in October 1927 and its completion in October 1941, some 400 people worked on constructing the monument. nearly 90% of the carving was done by dynamite; blasters could place charges specifically enough to blast rock off to within 3 inches of the final surface. once it got close enough, carvers switched to jackhammers, drilling a series of holes into the surface in a honeycomb patter to allow for more precise carving. this kicked up an incredible, fine dust. while they were provided with masks to prevent inhalation and subsequent damage to their lungs, the masks were stuffy and, in the direct sun hanging off the rock-face, many workers opted to go without. despite the dangerous working conditions, no one died during the course of the project, something rare for a monument of this size.
while the carvings at Mount Rushmore today don’t match the scope of what Borglum had in mind initially — head-to-waist high sculptures of the presidents, plus monuments to the Louisiana Purchase, Constitution & Declaration of Independence, as well as other territories, what stands today is pretty damn impressive.