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High on a pine-clad mountain in South Dakota's Black Hills are the carved faces of four presidents of the United StatesGeorge Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelteach chosen for such commemoration because of his unique contribution to the building and shaping of his country.
Created as a monument not only to those men but also to the aspirations and ideals of the nation they did so much to mold, the four faces together constitute the world's most gigantic piece of sculpture. Eight hundred million pounds of stone were removed in its carving, and so huge are the faces that from brow to chin each is as tall as the entire Great Sphinx in Egypt. Ordinary men of the same proportions would stand shoulder-even with a forty-story building and could wade the Mississippi River without dampening their knees. Yet, so skillfully are the faces carved that to an observer viewing them from across the canyon they do not appear massive or coarse or even heavy. On the contrary, they look as graceful and lifelike as the finest busts sculpted in a studio. Carved upon a cliff that has changed but little since mankind first appeared on earth and has worn down less than the thickness of a child's finger since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the faces will still be there, looking much as they do now, long after man has gone. All things considered, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is not only America's greatest and most enduring monument, it is all of mankind's as well.
Today the memorial is visited by well over two million people a year. When these visitors ask, as most do, "Who created it?" they are answered almost invariably with, "The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum."
In a limited sense that answer is true, but only in a limited sense. Certainly it is true that without Borglum's genius and stubborn dedication the monument might never have been carved, and the Rushmore cliff might look little different now than it did a million years ago. But that is only part of the story.
The Rushmore monument also came from the dreams of a gentle, aging scholar named Doane Robinson, and from the levelheaded judgment and legislative skill of United States Senator Peter Norbeck. Equally important was the down-to-earth business sense of Jon Boland, a dealer in farm implements, and the integrity and legislative ability of William Williamson, a United States congressman and attorney. Just as Borglum brought to the work talents these men did not possess, they brought to it talents Borglum did not possess. All together these men are to the Rushmore work as legs are to a table. It rests upon them all. Lacking any one of them it would have fallen, yet no single one of them could claim credit for the fact that it did not fall.
And there is more to the story, for the Rushmore memorial to a substantial extent is also the product of a United States president who learned how to fish, and to a very great extent that of a bunch of hard-working, hard-playing, drill-dusty miners who did the actual work of the carving. They came not even qualified to learn the art of mountain-carving, but learn they did, and the monument stands as everlasting evidence that they learned it well.
Beyond what it owes to these men, the memorial is a creation of two brief consecutive moments in our national historythe booming 1920s and the depressed 1930s. Only because these were the kind of times they were and occurred in the sequence they did was it possible for the Rushmore project to have been conceived, approved, executed, and paid for. Even so, the challenges were so enormous and the difficulties so nearly insurmountable that it almost failed. Most people who view the monument today do realize there were great challenges to be met in its construction. They know also, since the monument does exist, that those challenges were not impossible to overcome. The creators, however, were denied the comfort of such knowledge. Attempting to do that which never had been done before, they were never sure it could be done. When obstacles arose or money ran out, as both were always doing, time and again the machinery was covered, the work was abandoned, and the mountain was returned to silence. And each time this happened there was ample reason to believe the project could not be revived again...ever.
Eventually, the time did come when the work had to be permanently shut down and the carving left uncompleted according to its original design, and it happened for a reason that the builders could neither have avoided nor foreseen. Although the first World War was supposed to have made the world "safe for democracy" it had not done so. By the end of the 1930s, the free nations of Europe again were fighting for their very survival, and the United States was attempting both to supply them with the arms they needed and to rearm itself as well. Continued building of the monument that had come to be called "The Shrine of Democracy" was forced to give way to the building of what President Franklin Roosevelt called "The Arsenal of Democracy"; the nation could not afford to invest in both.
All together, then, the story of Mount Rushmore Memorial is not a simple story of a sculptor and a mountain. Rather, it is a complex story of men and their timesof unusual men and unusual times combined in a sometimes caustic but always creative chemistry that ultimately produced something far different from what had been originally intended. For, in the beginning presidents had not been the intended subject, Borglum had not been the intended sculptor, and Rushmore had not been the intended mountain.
To understand how it all actually happened, the story must be told from its beginningtwelve hundred miles from Mount Rushmore, in Georgia in the fall of 1923.