The Creation of Mount Rushmore

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October 4, 1927 – October 31, 1941

Mount Rushmore is a project of colossal proportion, colossal ambition and colossal achievement. It involved the efforts of nearly 400 men and women. The duties involved varied greatly from the call boy to drillers to the blacksmith to the housekeepers. Some of the workers at Mount Rushmore were interviewed, and were asked, “What is it you do here?” One of the workers responded and said, “I run a jackhammer.” Another worker responded to the same question, ” I earn $8.00 a day.” However, a third worker said, “I am helping to create a memorial.” The third worker had an idea of what they were trying to accomplish.

The workers had to endure conditions that varied from blazing hot to bitter cold and windy. Each day they climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain to punch-in on the time clock. Then 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500 foot face of the mountain in a “bosun chair”. Some of the workers admitted being uneasy with heights, but during the Depression, any job was a good job.

The work was exciting, but dangerous. 90% of the mountain was carved using dynamite. The powdermen would cut and set charges of dynamite of specific sizes to remove precise amounts of rock.

Before the dynamite charges could be set off, the workers would have to be cleared from the mountain. Workers in the winch house on top of the mountain would hand crank the winches to raise and lower the drillers. If they went too fast, the drillers in their bosun chairs would be dragged up on their faces. To keep this from happening, young men and boys were hired as call boys. Call boys sat at the edge of the mountain and shout messages back and forth assuring safety. During the 14 years of construction not one fatality occurred.

Dynamite was used until only three to six inches of rock was left to remove to get to the final carving surface. At this point, the drillers and assistant carvers would drill holes into the granite very close together. This was called honeycombing. The closely drilled holes would weaken the granite so it could be removed often by hand.

Visitors to the site were very interested in the honeycombed granite and would often ask, “How can I get a piece of rock like that?” The hoist operator would usually respond, “Oh, I can’t give that away. I’m holding onto it for a buddy of mine that works up on the mountain.” The visitor would respond, “I’ll pay, I’ll give you $2.00 for it.” The hoist operator’s reply was, “Nope, nope, I’d really catch it if I gave away my buddies piece of granite.” If the visitors were very determined to get a piece of that granite, they would make another offer. “I’ll give you $6.00 for that piece of honeycomb granite.” The hoist operator would pretend to pause and think about it… then he would say, “Alright for $6.00 I’m willing to take the heat.” The hoist operator would give the visitors the piece of honeycombed granite and take their $6.00. The visitor would leave very pleased with their rare and hard won souvenir. The hoist operator would wait until he was sure the visitors were gone and he would get on the phone to the top of the mountain and say, “Boys send down another one!” Another piece of honeycombed granite was sent down, ready for the next visitor looking for a special souvenir from Mount Rushmore.

After the honeycombing, the workers smoothed the surface of the faces with a hand facer or bumper tool. In this final step, the bumper tool would even up the granite, creating a surface as smooth as a sidewalk.

From 1927 to 1941 the 400 workers at Mount Rushmore were doing more than operating a jackhammer, they were doing more than earning $8.00 a day, they were building a Memorial that people from across the nation and around the world would come to see for generations.

John Gutzon Borglum

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John Gutzon Borglum is most notably known in South Dakota as the man who directed the carving of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. While making his mark both on South Dakota history and the visitor industry, he was known for other artistic works as well.

Before coming to South Dakota in 1925, Borglum studied art around the world. He spent three years in Paris, two years in California and six years in England before opening an art studio in New York.

Five years later, Borglum was commissioned to carve Stone Mountain in Georgia into the likeness of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. After preliminary work, Borglum left that task and went to South Dakota to work on the Mount Rushmore mountain carving.

Once a decision was made on which presidents would be honored on Mount Rushmore, the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were sculpted on the granite mountain.

Borglum’s project in the heart of the Black Hills was dedicated in 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge.

“We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone that was laid by the hand of the Almighty,” Coolidge said. “The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting hills of South Dakota will constitute a distinctly national monument. It will be decidedly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning, and altogether worthy of our country.”

It took 14 years to sculpt Mount Rushmore.

10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Mount Rushmore

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  • The idea of carving faces into a mountain was conceived as a way to increase tourism to the Black Hills area of South Dakota. Originally, it was proposed to do the carving in the Needles area of the Black Hills but the granite was too loose so the Mount Rushmore location was selected.
  • South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with the idea of creating the monument. His original idea was to feature the face of Western heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clark but in the end they decided to go with Presidents for a more national appeal.
  • The initial concept was to feature the Presidents from head to waist but lack of funding required construction to end in 1941.
  • The Lakota Sioux named this mountain Six Grandfathers. The mountain was renamed after a New York lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore after an expedition in 1885.
  • The carving started in 1927 and was not completed until 1941. The construction was led by Gutzon Borglum and later his son, Lincoln Borglum.
  • In 1937, a bill was introduced to Congress to add the face of Susan B. Anthony to the monument but a rider was added to the bill limiting funds to only the faces that had been started.
  • Nearly 3 million people visit Mount Rushmore each year.
  • It took 14 years and 400 workers to complete the sculpture, but not a single person died during construction.
  • The faces are approximately 60 feet high or about 6 stories tall. The eyes are 11 feet wide and the noses are 20 feet long.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s face was originally planned to be to the left of George Washington but 18 months into the carving they decided the rock wasn’t strong enough so Thomas Jefferson was moved to the right of Washington.

Additional Fun Facts

  • The artist who started the project was a Dutch-American sculptor named Gutzon Borglum. He died in 1941 before the project was completed, so his son took over for him.
  • The four American presidents on Mount Rushmore are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
  • It took a total of 14 years to finish the entire carving. It began in October of 1927 and was completed in October of 1941.
  • There were more than 400 people that helped carve Mount Rushmore, and even though climbing all 506 steps was dangerous, nobody died during the carving of the monument.
  • The original plan was for each president to be carved from his head to his waist, but there wasn’t enough funding to do that.
  • The sculpting of Mount Rushmore cost $989,992.32.