Question: What landmark, which turns 75 this year, took 400 men 14 years to carve—removing 400,000 tons of rock in the process—yet is still incomplete?
Answer: Mount Rushmore
In 1923, a historian named Doane Robinson dreamed up a colossal sculpture on the face of a mountain in hopes of encouraging tourism in North Dakota’s Black Hills region. Carving began in 1927, and ended in 1941 when funding ran out; the construction cost of $989,992 wasn’t enough to fully realize the sculptor’s original vision. Still, there’s no question that Mount Rushmore achieved Robinson’s goal of drawing millions of visitors—and inspiring awe in every one.
As you’d expect from a project this huge in scope, not everything at Rushmore went exactly as planned. One pleasant surprise was the project’s safety rating: Of the 400 workers who contributed to the carving, who were chosen not for their artistic abilities but rather their familiarity with dynamite, not a single fatality occurred, despite the dangerous conditions.
Here are a few more things you might not know about Mount Rushmore:
- The sculptor was a Danish-born artist named Gutzon Borglum, assisted by his son, Lincoln. The elder Borglum died just a few months before the monument’s completion, and Lincoln oversaw the final phase of construction—but the carving changed very little from when last Borglum saw it.
- This, however, was not because the sculpture was officially finished. If you share the popular opinion that Mount Rushmore looks incomplete, that’s because it is. Borglum’s initial plan was to depict each figure down to his waist—but inadequate funding halted the project in 1941 at just the 60-foot-tall heads. He had also planned a panel of eight-foot-tall gilded letters commemorating the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, and other patriotic milestones, but this, too, was scrapped.
- Robinson’s initial concept did not involve presidents, but western heroes including Lewis & Clark, Sacagawea, and Buffalo Bill Cody. Borglum requested the change, believing that the monument should depict presidents who best personified the formation and expansion of the United States. The four—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—were chosen with input from then-President Calvin Coolidge.
- Originally, Borglum planned to carve the sculpture into a rock formation known as the Needles, which turned out to be too weak. He chose Rushmore for its stability and sun exposure. The mountain got its name from a prominent New York lawyer named Charles E. Rushmore, who visited the region on a prospecting expedition in 1885. When he asked what it was called, his guide said it didn’t have a name, but from that point on, they’d call it Rushmore. The name stuck—even though the native Sioux people had already named it Six Grandfathers.
- Borglum had planned to have Jefferson to the right of Washington, but was forced to move him to the left due to the integrity of the rock. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize this until carving had begun, so preliminary work needed to be destroyed with dynamite.
- Eleanor Roosevelt introduced a bill to Congress requesting that Susan B. Anthony be added to the sculpture. Congress rejected the bill, stating that no additional heads would be funded.
- Borglum also intended to carve a Hall of Records into the back of the mountain, which would document the history of the U.S. and house the nation’s charter documents. He had gone so far as to blast the chamber before being told to focus first on the four heads. While Borglum never got the chance to revisit the Hall of Records, the idea came to fruition in 1998: the story of our nation, along with biographies of the four presidents and Borglum, are sealed in the vault, where they will remain until discovered by future civilizations.
- Whoever digs up the Hall of Records will likely still be able to see the sculptures: based on the rate at which granite naturally erodes—an inch every 10,000 years—the heads will be visible for around seven million years. The National Park Service has installed monitoring devices to alert them to unexpected changes in the mountain’s topography.
- Mount Rushmore is home to a herd of mountain goats. In the 1920s, the Canadian government gave the goats to a zoo in Custer State Park—from which they promptly escaped. Their descendants roam the Black Hills today.
Marvel at Mount Rushmore—and five different national parks—when you join Grand Circle for America’s Majestic National Parks.