Carving The American Colossus

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Borglum, while he did relatively little of the physical work himself, was often on the working face of the mountain, hovering over every detail. An intimidating boss when he was on the job—“If the Old Man said it was going to rain and the sun was shining, I said, ‘It sure looks like rain,’ ” one of his workmen reported—the artist was also found to be irascible and hard to work with by many others interested in seeing Mount Rushmore completed. Senator Norbeck, who was fond of Borglum despite painful altercations, observed that “his unwillingness to cooperate with anyone else is simply astonishing.”

This was especially awkward for the creator of a project that sometimes teetered toward bankruptcy and in the long run had to be bailed out by congressional appropriations. A concomitant of this was that in June, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service—a move that seemed possibly ominous, since the Service’s determination to keep things natural was legendary, and Mount Rushmore was anything but natural. Nothing much happened for three years, but in 1936 a “resident engineer” was assigned to the project by the government agency. The engineer, an affable and capable man named Julian C. Spotts, quickly set about installing a small cable car to obviate the daily climb up Mount Rushmore’s steep slope, and made other improvements such as increasing the efficiency of the compressedair system that operated the drills. Borglum, who could not stomach anything that remotely resembled supervision, responded by complaining bitterly about what he saw as Spoil’s bureaucratic administrative arrangements, and soon was conducting his negotiations with the engineer in writing although their offices on the site were almost adjacent.

This was fairly typical. The sculptor was in the habit, when particularly irritated at someone, of sending the begetter of his irritation a vitriolic letter, with carbon copies to congressmen, editors, or others who he thought should know of the fardels under which he labored. This did not win him many friends; yet he had many, for when a more genial humor seized him, Borglum could be notably charming and generous. During the Depression, for instance, he was greatly moved by the destitute state of the Indians on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, and expended much time and effort gathering large contributions of food and blankets for them. The Sioux made him an honorary chief—Chief Stone Eagle—in gratitude.

Despite Borglum’s thorny behavior toward the Park Service’s operative, F.D.R. decided to take a detour to Mount Rushmore while on a trip to survey Dust Bowl agricultural distress in August, 1936. The timing was good: Thomas Jefferson’s face had finally emerged from the mountain enough to sustain a dedication ceremony. Borglum grew baleful, however, when the presidential party was delayed two hours in arriving at the monument; he growled that afternoon shadows would now fall across Jefferson’s face and spoil everything. Nevertheless, when F.D.R. got there the sculptor did one of his quickchange performances, greeting the President with magisterial courtesy. Roosevelt watched with absorption as a few exemplary dynamite blasts blew stone off the monument with a great roar; then little parachutes, released from an airplane and weighted with chips of granite from the mountain, floated down among three thousand spectators while a seventy-foot flag was drawn aside to reveal Jefferson’s visage. Genuinely impressed, F.D.R. gave an impromptu and enthusiastic speech, and the event ended with everyone glowing and optimistic.

Mount Rushmore was now better than half finished, for work had begun on Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Borglum had proved that he could do the job if only the money problems could continue to be solved and the trouble caused by his contentiousness could be kept down to some reasonable level. A full account of the vicissitudes of the project in South Dakota and in Washington, where advocates steadily sought more government money for the monument, and of Borglum’s bickering with the National Park Service and the Mount Rush- more national commission would be very long and complicated (though such an account has been given in Gilbert C. File’s excellent book Mount Rushmore [1952], which remains by far the most thorough historical study of the whole subject).

Here it is enough to tick off highlights: the dedication of the Lincoln head in September, 1937; Borglum’s surprising luck in getting passage of new federal legislation in June, 1938, removing Mount Rushmore from the National Park Service’s control and authorizing §300,000 more toward finishing the work; F.D.R.'s decision, a year later, to reinstate control by the Service (since it was now clear that eventually the monument grounds would require careful planning and administration in order to be adequate for the expected crowds of tourists); the dedication of Theodore Roosevelt’s head in July, 1939. A visionary scheme of the sculptor to cut an enormous “Hall of Records” in the granite canyon up behind the great heads—to contain permanent records of American history, carved inscriptions, busts of other national heroes, etc., etc.—met with stubborn resistance from the Park Service and came to almost nothing, although Borglum, just as stubborn, did spend some S16,000 blasting a big square hole—the entrance to the Hall—twenty-five yards back into the stone before he was ordered to cease and desist. (It is still there, bleak and empty.)