Mount Rushmore is up there with the White House, the Empire State Building and the Hollywood Sign, as one of the United States most iconic landmarks. The 60-foot faces attract more than three million visitors to South Dakota every year. Local historian Doanne Robinson first dreamed up the idea in 1923, as a way to draw more tourists to the state, but the Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum took it one step further by transferring it to a mountain. Work began in 1927 and finished in 1941, after years of stop-start funding and weather delays. Now, 80 years after its completion, the ‘Shrine of Democracy’ is looking as healthy as ever, with all four noses still intact. Intrigued about the history behind this famous landscape? Here are a few interesting facts about Mount Rushmore we’ll wager you probably didn’t already know.
Interesting Facts about Mount Rushmore
1. It wasn’t easy to choose the presidents…
Borglum wanted Mount Rushmore to be a ‘shrine of democracy’, so each president had to have contributed to the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the United States. The first three presidents were easy enough to decide on. George Washington (1789–1797) was an obvious contender and got the spot thanks to his reputation as the nation’s founding father. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was the ultimate representation of expansion since he signed the Louisiana Purchase and authored the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was another obvious choice since he’d led the country through the Civil War and preserved the nation.
But who else? Initially, Borglum wanted Teddy Roosevelt, thanks to his conservation efforts and the building of the Panama Canal. Others wanted Woodrow Wilson, for his contributions to World War One. In the end, they settled on Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), to represent conservation and industrial expansion.
2. There was a campaign to add another face
In 1937, there was a grassroots campaign to add another face to Mount Rushmore – women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. Campaigners sent a bill to Congress, but it was rejected. Congress decided that only the four heads in progress could go ahead, given the Great Depression and imminent World War II.
3. They built it with dynamite
To build the presidential faces, over 400 men removed over 450,000 tons of granite. They started off the endeavour in 1927 with chisels and jackhammers, but after three weeks of work, Borglum decided to try dynamite. These men weren’t artists, but miners who had come to the Black Hills in search of gold. To prepare the mountain, they would drill deep holes into the rock, then a ‘powder monkey’ – a worker trained in explosives– would place the dynamite in the holes, from bottom to top. During the workers’ lunch break, they’d be detonated. In time and with a lot of practice, the workers could get within inches of the sculptures ‘skin’.
Miraculously, no one died in the 14 years of work.
4. There were meant to be words on it too
The original plan didn’t just feature faces, Borglum wanted words too. He wanted to carve the history of the United States into the rock face in an ‘Entablature’. They planned to include nine different stories that occurred between 1776 and 19096, along with an 80 x 12-foot image of the Louisiana Purchase. The idea got off to a good start, with Borglum successfully cajoling President Calvin Coolidge into writing a few words. But when Coolidge shared the first draft, Borglum changed it completely and sent it off to the newspapers. Coolidge was, understandably, upset and refused to write anymore. After a few more issues, they decided to abandon the Entablature idea.
5. There’s a secret room
Following the whole Entablature fiasco, Borglum had a new idea. He decided to create the ‘Hall of Records‘, a huge room carved into Mount Rushmore that could house American history. He planned to create an 800-foot-high granite stairway from his studio near the base of the mountain to the small canyon behind Lincoln’s head. The plan was to decorate the room with elaborate mosaic walls and busts of famous Americans, with aluminium scrolls detailing important events in American history set back in bronze cabinets.
In 1938, workers blasted a huge hole in the granite to make room for the Hall of Records but work halted in 1939 when funds tightened. An alarmed Borglum decided to concentrate on finishing the four faces. The room still exists, but without the staircase, no one could ever get to it. Then, in 1998, authorities placed a small repository in the room, designed for humans in the far future who might be intrigued about Mount Rushmore. It includes porcelain tablets telling the story of Mount Rushmore, as well as images and text from the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and biographies of the presidents and Borglum.
6. Jefferson had to move
Originally Jefferson was meant to sit left of George Washington, but the rock here was unstable due to high levels of quartz. Workers hacked away at the granite for over 18 months, until Borglum made the decision to shift him over to the right side. Workmen simply blasted the half-finished Jefferson and effectively erased his face in a day, then cracked on with work to the right of Washington.
7. It will erode… but elegantly
Mount Rushmore is made of granite, which erodes roughly one inch every 10,000 years – so it will erode, but it will take a long time. After about 500,000 years, the faces will probably have lost a little definition but they’ll keep their basic shape for around seven million years. Numerous preservation efforts are keeping the mountain intact too. Borglum originally added twelve inches to George Washington’s nose, to ensure it didn’t chip away too quickly. Authorities installed 8,000 ft. of camouflaged copper wire in 1998 to help monitor hairline cracks. They replaced it with fibre optic cable in 2009.