Heads, I Win! at Mount Rushmore

by Kevin Hamilton, SCA Communications Staff

When I was a kid, no attraction seized my imagination like Mount Rushmore: high in the sky, larger than life, unaffected by time. That sense of wonder has never waned and, in May, when business took me to South Dakota, I jumped at the chance to finally see this iconic landmark. Here are five things I discovered – including some important information for anyone planning to visit soon:

  1. First president not the first option. Mount Rushmore was proposed in 1923 to lure tourists to the Black Hills and, almost a century later, the monument draws three million visitors per year. Originally, however, Rushmore was to feature the likenesses of Western figures such as explorers Lewis and Clark and Lakota leader Red Cloud. To broaden its appeal, project director and sculptor Gutzon Borglum alternatively suggested carving leading presidents.
  2. Blasted, not chiseled. Sounds like something James Bond might say, but in fact 90% of the presidential likenesses were created through the precise use of dynamite. Most of the crew of 400 were former miners who knew how large or small an explosion they’d need to remove a deposit of rock. From there, they would hang in harnesses and finish-up using drills and jackhammers.
  3. Jefferson was relocated. Washington’s head was the first to be carved (1927-1930), and Jefferson was to be at the George’s right, or to the straight-on viewer’s far left – the opposite of where we see him now. But after 18 months of work, organizers determined flaws in the mountain’s granite required a change of plans and Jefferson’s original, incomplete head was blown up.
  4. Gutzon Borglum never saw his final creation. Borglum died in March, 1941, just months before Rushmore’s completion. His son, Lincoln, who had joined the project eight years earlier, oversaw the monument’s latter stages. Plans for carving the presidents’ torsos were scuttled as funding dried up, and the project was concluded on October 31. Total cost: $989,992.32.
  5. If you are planning to visit. Be advised that the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, the 3,000 seat amphitheater, and the site’s primary viewing concourse closed on May 31 for maintenance, and will remain off-limits into the summer of 2020. The famed Avenue of Flags and a short section of the Presidential Trail also are inaccessible during much of this period. Other viewing areas will be available, but expect longer lines than usual.