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Mount Rushmore Construction Pictures: History, Facts, & Trivia About When It Was Finished

1900s | November 14, 2019

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota was carved into granite in the Black Hills. Ninety percent of the carving involved the use of dynamite. Source: (Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty images.)

On October 31, 1941, construction on Mount Rushmore wrapped up after 14 years of work. The giant carved mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just outside the town of Keystone, has become a symbol of America and an attraction that welcomes more than three million visitors through its gates each year. Here are some fun and interesting facts about the Mount Rushmore construction process.

Mount Rushmore was built to bring tourists to South Dakota. Source: (thoughtco.com)

Mt. Rushmore as a Tourist Trap

Let’s face it: There isn't much in South Dakota. In the 1920s, the State Historian of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, was looking for a way to attract visitors to the state. (Apparently, the Corn Palace wasn't the nationwide draw they hoped it would be.) Robinson consulted a sculptor named Gutzon Borglum for suggestions, and he presented his audacious idea to a committee of some of South Dakota's most prominent business and political leaders, who approved his plan to carve the busts of four of America's former presidents into the granite face of a mountain. Federal funding for the project soon followed, and work began on the project on October 4, 1927.

Gutzon Borglum designed Mount Rushmore. Source: (smithsonianmag.com)

A Dangerous Endeavor

Each of the four faces on Mount Rushmore is approximately 60 feet tall, situated at the top of the 5,725-foot mountain. The majority of the work---almost 90% of it---was done with dynamite. Only after the rough shape was blasted from the rock did the workers come in to smooth and chisel the details of the carvings. Almost 400 workers had to climb up 700 stairs each day to get to the worksite, which could be treacherous, as the weather conditions varied greatly. On some summer days, the Sun was unrelenting, with temperatures spiking to over 100 degrees, while the winter days were freezing cold and blustery. The workers did their work sitting in bosun chairs, seats suspended from steel cables 3/8ths of an inch thick over the side of the mountain. Dangling workers and dynamite sound like a dangerous combination, yet no one was killed during the 14-year construction of Mount Rushmore. 

The entrance to the secret chamber behind Mount Rushmore. Source: (atlasobscura.com)

Mount Rushmore Hides a Secret Chamber

During the design phase of construction on Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum planned to build a large chamber inside the granite mountain. He envisioned this chamber, which he called the Hall of Records, as a repository for important American documents and artifacts. He wanted the entrance to be built on the northern wall of the small canyon that runs behind the faces, and he designed a prominent staircase to be carved into the granite to provide easy access to the Hall of Records. Unfortunately, the project lacked the finances to complete the chamber, and only a portion of the tunnel was built. In 1998, Borglum's dream of using the space as a repository finally came true when a box containing 16 tablets made of porcelain enamel was placed at the end of the tunnel. Together, the tablets tell the story of Mount Rushmore, who carved it and why, and the reason the four presidents were selected.

Workers dangled on the mountain face to carve the monument. Source: (nps.org)

Does Mount Rushmore Belong to the Sioux Indians?

Since construction began on Mount Rushmore, it received some pushback from the area's native Sioux tribes. The nomadic Sioux Indians lived on the land stretching from the Dakotas to Minnesota, and in the 1800s, they clashed with the European settlers who had arrived in the area. The conflict was only resolved with the signing of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which granted the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The U.S. government reneged on the treaty, however, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. They forced the Sioux out, and to add insult to injury, they renamed the mountain the Sioux called Six Grandfathers after New York attorney Charles Rushmore. The legal dispute over the true ownership of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills continues to this day.

It took 14 years to complete the monument. Source: (mashable.com)

Borglum was a White Supremacist

Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore's sculptor, was a lifelong white supremacist. Letters written to Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson in the 1920s reveal that Borglum believed strongly in the superiority of the Nordic people, and he was unfazed by the controversy with the Sioux tribe because he felt that the white European settlers were right to usurp the ancestral lands of the indigenous people. Borglum was an active member of several civic organizations, including the Masons and the Ku Klux Klan. Although he later denied membership in the KKK, records show that he was a fairly high-ranking member of the organization. 

Borglum died seven months before the project was complete. Source: (thoughtco.com)

Borglum Never Saw Mount Rushmore's Completion

Gutzon Borglum died seven months before Mount Rushmore was completed. His son, Lincoln, took over as supervisor of the project and saw it through to completion.

The monument was carved into solid granite. Source: (smithsonianmag.com)

Borglum Picked the Four Presidents Himself

When Gutzon Borglum created the design for Mount Rushmore, he alone selected the four presidents he wanted to feature. In his original presentation, he explained that he selected George Washington because he represented the foundation of American democracy and Thomas Jefferson because he expanded the country through the Louisiana Purchase. He added Theodore Roosevelt for both his conservation efforts and his push for industrialization and Abraham Lincoln because he took strides to preserve the unity of the country during the Civil War. No word on how he felt about the Emancipation Proclamation.

More than three million people each year visit Mount Rushmore. Source: (fullsuitcase.com)

Unfinished Plans

The Hall of Records was not the only feature of Borglum's original design that was abandoned once work began on Mount Rushmore. The plans called for the four presidents to be shown from the waist up, with Washington's colonial coat prominently displayed. That portion of the sculpture was abandoned as the project neared completion and the looming presence of World War II cranked up the pressure to finish the monument. The other part of the design that was forfeited was the Entablature, a text of nine bullet points highlighting important events in U.S. history. Facing budget challenges, the Entablature idea was scrapped, and untold scores of families were saved the injustice of reading on vacation.

Tags: mount rushmore | south dakota

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.