Carving The American Colossus


The undaunted Robinson had heard about Gutzon Borglum’s work on Stone Mountain, Georgia, a few miles from Atlanta. There, after a series of troublesome fits and starts, the sculptor had begun a bas-relief high up on the side of the mountain, depicting Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders riding into history in glorious defeat; his twenty-foot head of Lee had been unveiled on January 19, 1924. Here was a man who clearly knew how to carve granite on a titanic scale, and Robinson wrote Borglum suggesting “a massive sculpture” in the Black Hills. He was unaware that the artist was having ferocious troubles with the Stone Mountain Monumental [sic] Association over the administration of the project, and was delighted when, late in September, 1924, Borglum arrived to look over the terrain. Accompanied by his twelve-year-old son, Lincoln Borglum, as well as by historian Robinson and a few local enthusiasts, the sculptor toured beautiful Custer State Park and the next day climbed Harney Peak, the highest (7,242 feet) in the Black Hills. He was more than impressed by what he saw from that eminence. Nearby and in the distance rose an array of granite needles and outcroppings that seemed to him to beg for sculpting. “There’s the place to carve a great national memorial,” Doane Robinson reported him as saying. “American history shall march along that skyline!”

This somewhat majestic rhetoric was pure Borglum, for he was a man not given to understatement. It also hinted that the sculptor would not be content to carve figures of Western or regional heroes; he wanted a truly national monument, and proposed Washington and Lincoln as obviously appropriate candidates. Senator Norbeck was not happy with what he called Borglum’s “WashingtonLincoln Siamese twins idea,” and on thinking it over, the artist himself concluded that “making totem poles of these wonderful spires [the Needles]” was indeed the wrong approach. Instead, “we want to go back into the Hills, find some now unknown massive stone, and carve these figures upon them.”

In August, 1925, Borglum found his “unknown massive stone.” He had been guided by a state forester into a remote area of the Harney National Forest where there were more extensive outcroppings than the Needles offered. About three miles northeast of Harney Peak, Borglum came to a halt, staring with a wild surmise at an enormous expanse of weathered gray stone, seamed with wrinkles and fissures across its nearly perpendicular side, but apparently one solid mass of granite underneath. Crowding the sky at six thousand feet, it looked like the body of a huge prehistoric elephant that had become petrified in some cataclysmic episode millions of years ago. Borglum felt immediately that this was his mountain, and quickly sketched it—with a head of Washington roughed in against the granite side near the top.

The artist learned that this extraordinary mountain was called Rushmore—casually named in 1885 after Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer who was struck by its appearance when he encountered it on a trip to check property titles for miners in the area. Although Borglum conscientiously examined other stone masses in the vicinity, the more he studied Mount Rushmore the more he grew convinced that this was the right place for the singular monument he had in mind. The granite, although rugged—geologists guessed it would erode at a rate not faster than an inch in 100,000 years—seemed suitably grained for accurate cutting; the posture of the mountain was perfect in terms of natural lighting, for its most carvable surface faced southeast and would be bathed in sunlight nearly all day.

Legislation to permit mountain sculpture in the Black Hills had already been passed by Congress and by the South Dakota state legislature. Borglum exhibited a distinctly Barnumesque flair in working up plans for dedication of the chosen site, and after lively publicity a couple of thousand citizens hiked out to the base of Mount Rushmore on October 1, 1925. There they watched performers in costume—Indian, French, Spanish, English, and American, to indicate successive “ownership"—go through a fancy flag-raising ceremony atop the mountain, and heard Borglum declare sonorously that if they would come back in a year they would see the finished head of George Washington that was (as he liked to put it) waiting in the granite to be released.

In fact, two years went by before carving was even begun on Mount Rushmore. The chief problem was one from which the project was never to be free: lack of money. Borglum, who lived lavishly but was almost always in debt, tended to assume that the patriotic appeal of the proposed monument, enhanced by skillful promotion, would bring forth large sums from both public and private sources. Events revealed instead a skeptical reluctance in Congress to appropriate funds for Rushmore, and an almost incredible parsimony on the part of the state of South Dakota, which never appropriated a dime for what was eventually to become its most popular tourist attraction. Private contributions ran to dribbles rather than floods. It was, to be sure, an expensive business by the frugal standards of the time: in the end—1941—the total outlay for Mount Rushmore would be calculated at $989,992, of which federal appropriations accounted for $836,000.