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1941 Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

The Making of the Presidents

On October 31, fourteen years after construction began, the last men came off Mount Rushmore, and the project reached a quiet end. The four tremendous heads sculpted from the mountainside were left without a final dedication ceremony, because federal money was being husbanded for defense in case the nation entered the spreading war in Europe. Gutzon Borglum, the man who had, in his own words, “released” the giant busts of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt from the South Dakota mountain, died six months before the last of the work ended.

The idea of carving American heroes into the Black Hills had originated with a Western history writer named Doane Robinson. He had heard of a huge equestrian relief of Robert E. Lee being cut by Borglum from Georgia’s Stone Mountain and invited the sculptor to South Dakota to scout possible sites in Custer State Park for a “massive sculpture.” Borglum was happy to abandon the Lee project, with its legal and monetary entanglements, for something even grander. However, rather than the frontier icons that Robinson envisioned, the sculptor first proposed twin busts of Washington and Lincoln, then found a larger granite surface out of which four great heads might emerge. The mountain they chose was named for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer who had come to know the area while researching the land claims of miners in the 188Os. In 1927 he gave Borglum his first check for the project, for five thousand dollars. The cliff face the sculptor had chosen was five hundred feet across and four hundred feet high, a “veritable Garden of the Gods,” said Borglum.

“Mr. Borglum was very businesslike,” remembers Gerald Snedigar, who worked as a “call boy” on the mountain during his college summers of 1938 and 1939, riding a tethered cage to relay messages between the drillers and blasters on the cliff. When Calvin Coolidge visited on his 1927 vacation, Snedigar helped clean out nearby streams where the President would fish, and then carried in buckets of trout to pour in upriver. President Coolidge dedicated the mountain August 10, 1927. Borglum’s men began work the same day with dynamite and pneumatic drills, blasting to specifications, then picking away and smoothing the rock.

Most of the 360 men who worked for Borglum over the fourteen years were miners from Keystone or Rapid City, South Dakota. Borglum “knew what he was doing, knew what he wanted,” according to Don Clifford, a native of Keystone whom the sculptor hired when he was seventeen. He worked off and on below the chins of Presidents Roosevelt and Lincoln as a driller, winchman, and rough carver for three years. “A lot of the time he’d go someplace to eat and get up, wouldn’t pay,” Clifford recalls of his fanatical boss. “He figured he was bringing in so many tourists, why should he?”

The state of South Dakota gave nothing to the project; the federal government allotted $836,000 of the $989,992 it ultimately cost. The dogged task of raising money was as troublesome as any peculiarities in the rock. Washington’s head took shape and was dedicated with new funds in 1930; Jefferson was dedicated in 1936, followed by Lincoln in 1937. Roosevelt, the final portrait, was completed in 1939. Lack of money and the coming of the war kept Borglum from carving each portrait down to the waist, as originally planned.

“Most of us guys were just rough carvers,” says Clifford, “so when it came down to Lincoln’s nose or eye or something, these finish carvers would come in.” The finish carvers smoothed the granite skin of the Presidents with four-pronged “bumpers.” Respirators were optional on the mountain, and some of the men developed silicosis from years of breathing granite dust.

After fourteen years of supervising and drumming up money, Borglum suffered a fatal blood clot following standard prostate surgery. His son, Lincoln, who had first looked across at the clean face of Rushmore as a twelve-year-old hiking with his father, led his crew to the end of the job, a little more than a month before Pearl Harbor.

Mount Rushmore finally received a formal dedication last July 3, with President Bush, the popular musician Huey Lewis, and a few surviving members of Borglum’s crew in attendance. Don Clifford went up on the mountain twice for television interviews, the first time he had gone up in fifty-one years. “I’d go again if they’d ask me tomorrow or even this afternoon,” he says. “I don’t think any of us that are left will ever forget it. It was something, really something.” While he was standing in his old place under Roosevelt, Clifford reached out to touch the president’s face and admired the work of the finish carvers. “There were no bumps, it was just smooth.”

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