Mount Rushmore  is the physical manifestation of the imaginations of two men: Doane Robinson and Gutzon Borglum. Doane Robinson moved to South Dakota to practice law and fell in love with the state. A Renaissance man of sorts, Robinson wrote poetry and fiction.
He was also fascinated with South Dakota’s history. This interest eventually led to his career as the South Dakota state historian. In this capacity, he wrote many historical and biographical papers on South Dakota and its citizens, and collected and archived artifacts for the state historical society.
An ardent supporter of the state, Robinson believed that South Dakota could boost its tourist income by creating an attraction that would draw visitors from across the country. It was the dawn of the age of the automobile, and Robinson wanted South Dakota to cash in on this new traveling America.
After reading about the Stone Mountain project in Georgia, a mountain-carving project under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, he became inspired. A huge mountain carving seemed the perfect project, and Robinson contacted sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1924 to see if he would be interested in such an endeavor. Borglum accepted the challenge and the Mount Rushmore  project was begun. While Robinson was the man behind the idea of a mountain carving, it was the vision of Gutzon Borglum that brought the presidential theme to the table, and finally to fruition.
Gutzon Borglum, born in Idaho in 1867, spent many of his formative years moving with his family. In addition to Idaho, the family lived in Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, and California, where Gutzon began his artistic career. Early success allowed him to pursue his studies overseas. He spent two years in Paris, where he was befriended by the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin. He spent another year in Spain and five years in England, where he continued to experience a level of success most artists only dream of, including an exhibition of some of his pieces for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.
Borglum finally returned to the United States in 1901 and brought with him a desire to create a distinctly American art form. Drawn to large surfaces, one of his first projects was a bust of Abraham Lincoln that stood nearly 40 inches tall and weighed about 375 pounds. Lauded by Abraham Lincoln’s son, the piece received a lot of media attention. (Today, Abraham Lincoln’s bust resides in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington DC.)
The Lincoln sculpture inspired the United Daughters of the Confederacy to contact Borglum about creating a bust of Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia. Borglum proposed a much more ambitious project, believing that a single bust would be lost on the large mountainside and his proposal was accepted.
The Stone Mountain project that Borglum envisioned included Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, all on horseback, leading a column of confederate soldiers. Initially the carving was done with jackhammers and chisels. Later, a visiting engineer showed Borglum how to use dynamite with precision and Borglum incorporated this into his work.
Gutzon Borglum was a controversial character. Larger than life, highly opinionated, and reputedly short-tempered, he was a man not given to compromise and not easy to work with. By the time that Robinson contacted him about working at Mount Rushmore, there was trouble brewing at the Stone Mountain project and, shortly thereafter, Borglum was dismissed. This freed him to accept the Mount Rushmore  project.
After his departure from Stone Mountain, all evidence of Borglum’s work on the mountain was erased with dynamite. While no trace of Borglum’s work on Stone Mountain remains, his experience there provided him with the knowledge he needed to tackle the colossal Mount Rushmore project. Work began on Mount Rushmore on October 4, 1927, when Borglum was 60 years old.
Originally, it was Doane Robinson’s thought that Borglum could create a veritable parade of sculptures of American heroes, both white and Native American, on the many spires of the Needles formation near Sylvan Lake . After his first visit to the Black Hills , however, Borglum rejected that plan, as he felt that the Needles would be too fragile to withstand the carving process.
He began his own search for a good location for the monument and selected the granite face of Mount Rushmore. The granite wall faced south, which would provide sunshine in the winter months and allow for a longer carving season. Also, granite is extremely hard and would guarantee that the countenances of Mount Rushmore would gaze over the plains for eons to come. In this, Borglum was correct. It is estimated that erosion on that granite face of Mount Rushmore will total one inch every 10,000 years.
Once Borglum found the appropriate location for his monumental project, he began to contemplate the form it should take. He wanted the monument to be national and not regional in nature. His first choices were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Soon after, the size of the project was increased to include Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. These were men of great leadership and key players in the growth of the United States.
George Washington was chosen for his role in leading America to independence from Great Britain and for being the first democratic president of the new country.
The selection of Abraham Lincoln elicited some grumbling on the part of the Southern states, but Borglum maintained that Lincoln deserved recognition and the honor of being a part of this great endeavor. (Borglum admired Lincoln’s dedication to the preservation of the Union, and his firm belief in equality and freedom.)
Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, a document that inspires emerging democracies to this day. He also had an expansive vision of what America could be, engineering the Louisiana Purchase during his tenure.
Theodore Roosevelt was the most contemporary of the presidents selected for placement on the mountain. Roosevelt owned a ranch in Dakota Territory (in what is now North Dakota) and prior to his presidency was famous for his role with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After the famous battle of San Juan Hill, Roosevelt returned a popular American hero.
After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt became president. He was an active conservationist who used his position to protect wildlife and public lands. Under his tenure, Roosevelt protected over 230,000,000 acres with the creation of national parks, national forests, game preserves, bird reservations, and national monuments. Roosevelt was also known for taking care of the common man. He spearheaded anti-trust legislation, created the Food and Drug Administration, and regulated railroads.
Once the selection of the presidents was finalized, models were made and the carving commenced. Four hundred people toiled for 14 years to create the monument we see today. Mount Rushmore  is huge. It is hard to get a feel for the sheer size of the monument from the various viewing platforms available at the base of the mountain.
George Washington’s head is six stories tall; the distance from his forehead to his chin is 60 feet. His eye alone is 11 feet wide and his mouth is 18 feet wide. If his entire body were carved proportionately, he would be around 465 feet tall. Add to those dimensions another three heads, making the monument approximately 60 feet high and 185 feet wide, and you have some insight into the project’s size.
The tools used to carve the mountain included pneumatic drills, jackhammers, chisels, and dynamite. The workers would hike the 700 stairs to the top of the mountain every morning, climb into sling chairs (called bosun chairs), and be lowered down the face of the mountain to their carving position for the day. The chairs were affixed to the top of the mountain by 3/8-inch steel cable and workers were lowered with winches.
This was not a job for someone afraid of heights. Dangerous as it was, there were no fatalities and only a few minor injuries incurred at the monument over the 14 years of the carving project.
Gutzon Borglum was the designer and director of the project but he was not always on-site. While he was gone in search of additional funding for the project or working on other commissions, he left his assistants, including his son, Lincoln Borglum, in charge of the project. He would return on a regular basis to inspect the progress of the carving, making corrections and changes to the design as needed in order to work with the rock structure of the mountain.
In March 1941, Gutzon Borglum died in Chicago from complications following surgery. He was just a few days shy of his 74th birthday. With the death of the artist and at a time when America was facing involvement in World War II, the decision was made to discontinue work on the monument. The faces of Mount Rushmore  were virtually finished. Lincoln Borglum supervised the finishing touches and clean-up of the monument site and in October 1941, the monument was declared complete.