Tuesday, October 26, 2010


"... let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away."
Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore sculptor, 1930

I love photos. I'm sure that will come as quite a shock to all of you. But as much as I love photos, they can't always convey the magic of seeing something in person.

I've seen photos of Mount Rushmore. Actually seeing Mount Rushmore was monumental - pun intended.

Mount Rushmore was one of the stops on our vacation last week. As I looked at this monument carved out of the Black Hills of South Dakota, I kept thinking about what a genius sculptor and artist Gutzon Borglum had to have been.

He didn't have any computer models. He didn't have modern equipment. He didn't have state-of-the-art blasting tools. He used a protractor ... yes, a protractor ... to figure out the measurements and dimensions.

I saw a jetstream slice through the clear blue sky while I listened to a park ranger tell the story of Mount Rushmore.

And I realized that while Borglum didn't have modern contraptions, he had something much more valuable: He had vision.

He could "see" through the layers of rock. And he had the skill and determination and intestinal fortitude to make it happen.

As with many monumental projects, not everybody was on the same page at first. In 1923, Doane Robinson, the superintendent of the South Dakota State Historical Society, had envisioned a massive mountain memorial carved from stone so large it would put South Dakota on the map and bring tourists by the carload. Robinson was dreaming of Western figures such as Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark and other Western heroes.

But Borglum didn't share that vision. The outspoken sculptor told Robinson that his life's work would not be spent immortalizing regional heroes. Instead, he insisted the work demanded a subject national in nature and timeless in its history.

By selecting four presidential figures for the carving, Borglum wanted to create a reminder of the birth, growth, preservation and development of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of individual liberty.

An avenue of state flags frames the walkway toward the memorial.

The selection of the four presidents was not without controversy either. Washington and Lincoln were obvious choices, and they were carved first and second, respectively.

The park ranger leading our tour said he's often asked, "Who are the other two guys?" While I find that a sad commentary on American's grasp of their own history, I guess grade school children aren't celebrating the birthdays of Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt by coloring their faces and making paper cherry trees. On the other hand, when I was a grade school student, we did pay homage to Washington and Lincoln when we celebrated their February birthdays (individually - I might add.) Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was another obvious choice for the monument, though his face might not be universally recognized.

Teddy Roosevelt was the most controversial of Borglum's choices. The president was a personal friend of the sculptor, but, as our park ranger said, Roosevelt was a champion of the American west and he - like his compatriots in stone - left the president's office better than he found it.

In 1927, with the help of more than 400 workers and several influential politicians, Borglum began carving a memorial to the history of America. More than 450,000 tons of rock were removed from Mount Rushmore to bring out the four presidential faces. Although nearly 90 percent of the rock was removed with dynamite, the remaining rock was removed by drilling with jackhammers and wedging the rock off the mountain.

The monument was finally completed in 1941. Borglum's son, Lincoln, did the final work on the monument after his father's death in March 1941.

The detail is remarkable. The closer you get to the monument, the more details you see. How did Borglum know what pieces of rock to remove to make the eyes stand out in each president's face? Genius ...

Today Mount Rushmore is visited by some 3 million visitors a year from across the U.S. and the world.

I was glad to visit the monument in the off-season and avoid some of those 3 million visitors.


  1. For the last 3 years, we have gone to family Bible camp not far from Rushmore (Anna DOES know all the men!!) I LOVE that place. I hope you stayed for the evening presentation - it's well worth the time also! I am also in awe of his ability to do this. I have good ideas, some big ideas, but the tenacity to bring them to fruition on a scale of this magnitude is amazing!

  2. Mt. Rushmore is special to me, as Marion ahd I went there on our honeymoon in 1956. Somewhere they were started on a monument to Chief Crazyhorse. You could see the outline of his face and his pointing arm at that time. Amazing what can be accomplished!!

    Jane T

  3. @Jen - Unfortunately, the same time frame that gave us budget motel rates and small crowds also meant there was no evening program. I'm sure I would have loved it.
    @ Jane - What a beautiful place for a honeymoon! We just looked at Crazy Horse from the road. Two different people at church advised not paying the $10/head charge. Don't know whether it was the right decision or not.
    @ Anonymous - This week, we would have had rain, so I guess I'm glad I was there LAST week!