Hills region of South Dakota is a beautiful place. While traveling through
Custer State Park we found a buffalo grazing on a hillside in front of a forest
that ran up into a mountain. I got Laura to stop the truck and ignoring the
warning that "Buffalo are dangerous", jumped out with camera in hand
and advanced like a hunter through the grass for that perfect picture that I
must have. Preparing myself for an instant flight along a pre-planned zigzag
path to avoid the inevitable gore as this beast took exception to my intrusion,
I prepared to capture the ultimate picture of the ultimate place. Slooooooly,
the behemoth turned and I suddenly found myself face to face with the largest
hoofed animal I had ever seen. As our eyes met, he lowered his head to display
his magnificent horns,... I froze in anticipation of his very next move. We held
each other's stare for a second and then he --------- yawned and
with a mighty heave, flopped himself on the ground, turned his head away and
gazed off into the mountains, dismissing me as yet another minor irritation in
his otherwise sedentary life. Thus the picture of a lifetime was reduced to a
nice snap shot of the beautiful Black Hills with a brown lump a foreground. What
can I say?
But all was not lost as we had come to see the largest sculpture the world has ever known. Standing high above the forest and streams of Custer State Park, lies Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It is as much a product of dreams as determination of a talented sculptor. In 1923 Doane Robinson, the aging superintendent of the South Dakota State Historical Society had a vision of a massive mountain memorial carved from stone. So large it would put South Dakota on the map. Robinson told all who would listen of his dream of giant statues of Western Figures such as General George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark and a legendary Sioux warrior marching along South Dakota skyline. Robinson spoke to local organizations and wrote letter upon letter. Many South Dakotans believed that a colossal sculpture would attract thousands of visitors with heavy wallets. Others found the notion ludicrous. Finally when the newspaper stories stopped and the snickers ceased, Robinson enlisted the aid of the one man he knew could carry the torch. He contacted the respected U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a frequent visitor at the White House had the admiration of his peers in the Senate and the farmers and ranchers of South Dakota who had sent him to Washington. Robinson's mountain-carving proposal captured the senior Senator's imagination and he encouraged the historian to seek a sculptor capable of endeavoring such a project. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, one of America's most prolific artists, received a letter from Robinson proposing the project in August of 1924. It couldn't have come at a more opportune moment.
Borglum had been working on the famed Stone Mountain sculpture in Georgia, and had become embroiled in controversy and descent over many of the decisions being made. He stormed away from Georgia, destroying the precious model required to continue the work. His version would never be completed without the model so the mountain was blasted flush and the whole thing started over again. Borglum soon accepted Robinson's offer. Upon his arrival in September of 1924, the flamboyant Borglum politely informed Robinson and Norbeck that his life's work would not be spent immortalizing regional heroes. The sculptor insisted the work demanded a subject national in nature and timeless in its relevance to history. By selecting great presidential figures for the carving, he sought to create an eternal remainder of the birth, growth, and preservation, of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of liberty. His original model contained only three great Presidents, but a forth in the form of Theodore Roosevelt was added. Borglum soon embarked on a site-searching trip to find a grouping of rock massive enough to support a giant sculpture. Although in his sixties Borglum insisted on viewing the rocks himself, so he and his party climbed Harney Peak, which at 7242 feet is the highest point between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. The surrounding vista inspired him. Here he found what he was looking for. He set his sights on the craggy rock face known as Mount Rushmore, near the town of Keystone. It had a southeastern exposure, giving it direct sunlight for most of the day and was made of sound granite. Senator Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson easily secured federal legislation to allow a mountain carving in Harney National Forest. A similar bill in the state Legislature passed in 1925. Many months would pass as supporters of the Rushmore project scrambled for funding. Environmentalists suggested the project would deface the mountainside. Others questioned if the sculpture could even be done. There were even arguments that a sculptor could not hope to improve on what a higher power had created. By 1926 most South Dakotans dismissed the whole concept as being just too impractical. And thus it might have stayed, had it not been for Presidential intervention. President Calvin Coolidge decided to spend his three week summer holiday in the Black Hills. State officials went out of their way to see that his stay was meaningful. This went so far as to include blocking up the local stream so that the stocked fish would be plentiful for the President's first fishing lessons. This gave both Borglum and Norbeck enough time to convince Coolidge to participate in the formal dedication. Before he left, the President gave a stirring speech to some 1000 South Dakota residents proclaiming the project as a national shrine. Borglum then climbed to the mountain's summit and symbolically drilled 6 holes to mark the commencement of the carving. Federal funds followed quickly upon the President's return to Washington. Work started by employing the out-of-work local miners suffering from the worst depression in the history of the US. Over the next six and half years of work that occurred on and off between 1927 and 1941, Borglum employed almost 400 local workers. They did everything from building roads to running cook houses for the workers. There were those whose job it was to set dynamite charges or complete delicate finishing work on the sculpture. Among the most highly skilled workers were those using the dynamite. Using techniques he developed at Stone Mountain, and skills his crew had acquired in mining, Borglum used the explosive in a innovative way to remove large amounts of rock quickly and relatively inexpensively. His powdermen became so skilled that they could blast to within four inches of the finished surface. Borglum again, created a model of the four presidents on a 1 to 12 in scale, meaning an inch on the model represented a foot on the cliff. This model has been preserved for viewing at the Sculptor's studio. Through a system of protractors the scale model was transferred to the mountain site. After the dynamite had done its work, workmen began the tedious task of drilling closely spaced holes to exacting depths, a process that came to be know as "honeycombing". The rock between the holes was then broken away with hammer and chisel. The final process known as "bumping" used a pneumatic drill and a special bit to leave the finished surface as smooth as a cement road. Although skilled drillers made only $1.25 an hour, the crew found themselves repeatedly out of work when funds ran out or the harsh South Dakota winter drove them off the peak. As completion neared, Borglum became increasingly concerned with thoughts about the mountain becoming a mystery to future generations. By 1939, Borglum began carving a giant vault in the canyon wall directly behind Mount Rushmore. Here, he planed to leave records of the memorial, which would include a history of the 4 great figures as well as a history of his own achievements. This would have been a time vault had Borglum lived to finish it but his untimely death and the beginning of World War II ended the project. His son continued with the finishing touches and declared the sculpture complete in October of 1941. The National Park Service returned to the vault much later and in 1998 completed a scaled down version of Borglum's desire. It is big, massive by any comparison and well worth the viewing. The story of Borglum is a fascinating one. It should be on everyone's "must see" list. Not far away is the Borglum museum where you can sit on the knee of another of his famous creations, the sitting Lincoln.
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