In 1927, workmen with lively nicknames like “Whiskey Art”, “Palooka”, and “Hoot” quit their regular jobs. They were among the 400 people invited to create Mount Rushmore, a massive mountainside carving of four United States presidents in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The work would be on-and-off labor lasting fourteen years. Mount Rushmore was conceived by the South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson in 1923. He had learned of a similar project underway in the southern US. Just east of Atlanta, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum had been commissioned to carve into Stone Mountain the likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and a column of soldiers. The historian thought a similar undertaking by Borglum could draw tourists’ dollars to the Black Hills region.
To help maximize tourism interest, Borglum suggested that South Dakota choose a theme of national significance. The men settled upon the first 150 years of United States history, with four presidents being selected to represent the nation’s development. These include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Collectively, these men symbolized the country’s founding, expansion, and unity. The project received approval from Congress and President Calvin Coolidge.
As the project began in 1927, Lakota Sioux people and their supporters opposed the undertaking. Traditionally, they had called the mountain Six Grandfathers Mountain and traveled it for spiritual journeys. Following the Black Hills War of 1876-1877, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the land to the Lakota in perpetuity. Now, the land had again been taken. Furthermore, the creation of 60-foot faces of United States presidents, symbols of their oppression, would forever mar the sacred landscape. The fact that Borglum was a Ku Klux Klan member added to the insult!
Six Grandfathers was first informally called Mount Rushmore during an 1885 expedition. Charles Rushmore, a wealthy New York lawyer and prospector, suggested giving the mountain his name. However, it was also known to white Americans as Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain, and Keystone Cliffs. The United States Board of Geographic Names officially named Mount Rushmore in 1930. Borglum chose this particular mountain for two reasons. First, its face met with sunlight for most of the day. Second, it was composed of smooth granite. The rock would be conducive to carving, and the material erodes very slowly (about an inch every 10,000 years). Nonetheless, over fourteen years of labor the faces suffered minor cracks. Fractures were sealed with pegmatite and are evident in lighter streaks on the presidents’ foreheads.
As the project went on, some people continued to question what the faces were symbolizing, and whether the monument should be considered racist given the history of US expansion through native lands. In 1937, before the project was finished, a bill in US Congress proposed adding the face of Susan B. Anthony, a symbol for civil rights. However, federal funds were ultimately refused.
Members of the American Indian Movement occupied the monument in 1971. The Lakota holy man John Fire Lame Deer said that the protestors formed a symbolic shroud over the presidents’ faces, “which shall remain dirty until the treaties concerning the Black Hills are fulfilled”. (A monument to the Native American leader Crazy Horse, first proposed in 1939, is being constructed eight miles away. It is also controversial.) Of some solace to opponents is that the monument, already six stories tall, was intended to be much larger but lacked funding. The original project cost just under $1 million during the Great Depression. (The largest single donation came from Charles Rushmore himself, who gave $5,000.) Borglum had hoped to depict the presidents from head to waist.
The artist also intended to chisel an expansive panel in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase. This would include gilded words commemorating founding documents and territorial expansion; imagine the golden 8-foot tall letters “U. S. Constitution” carved into a mountainside. Instead, similar information is now engraved on porcelain panels inside a vault installed behind the faces in 1998. The engravings include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, biographies of the four presidents, and a history of the United States.
A 1998 update to the Visitor Center cost $58 million. The renovation added the porcelain panels, expanded visitor parking, and created a Lincoln Borglum Museum.