How a ‘shrine of democracy’ has become a destination for three million visitors a year

11th February 2021

Often referred to as the ‘Shrine of Democracy’, the idea for Mount Rushmore was conceived in 1923 by local historian Jonah LeRoy ‘Doane’ Robinson.

Robinson introduced a bill to the South Dakota State legislature seeking permission and funds to scout a location for a massive carvings project; the sculpture was originally to include the Sioux Nation chief as well as local famous South Dakotans.

While denied funding, he was granted permission to look for an area, with the aim to create a carving that would attract tourists to visit the South Dakota area of the United States.

A year later in 1924, Robinson persuaded John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, an American sculptor, to travel to the region to discuss the viability of carvings in granite pillars known as the ‘Needles’.

Gutzon Borglum soon realised that the eroded Needles were too thin to support sculpting, and proposed Mount Rushmore as an alternative, much grander location. This was in part due to the fact that it faced south east and therefore experienced maximum exposure of the sun.

Whilst Robinson wanted it to feature American West heroes such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse, Borglum believed that the sculpture should have broader appeal and chose the four presidents.

After protracted discussions involving President Calvin Coolidge and a delegation from Congress, the Mount Rushmore project received approval in March 1925.

However, it was Peter Norbeck, a US Senator from South Dakota, who became the sponsor for the project, securing federal funding to ensure that construction work could start in 1927.

Between October 1927 and October 1941, Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the huge 60ft high carvings of four United States Presidents: George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).

These four presidents were chosen to depict the first 150 years of American history and to recognise their respective roles in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory. Significantly, they were also to represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the USA.
The process of creating the carvings commenced with the use of dynamite to blast away 450,000 tonnes of rock off the mountainside. This was followed by workers drilling thousands of holes close together, a process known as ‘honeycombing’, which allowed for the removal by hand of small pieces of rock.

Borglum himself, died from an embolism in March 1941, with his son Lincoln Borglum continuing the project, which was originally planned to have figures carved from head to waist. However, due to insufficient funding, the carvings were forced to end.

In total, the entire project cost US$990,000 to create, with the last remaining carver Nick Clifford, passing away at the age of 98 in November 2019.

The Mount Rushmore memorial park, which receives over three million visitors a year, spans 1200 acres with the actual mountain itself rising to 5,725 feet about sea level. The original Sculptor’s Studio still exists today, built in 1939 it displays unique plaster models and tools relating to the project and was originally constructed under the direction of Gutzon Borglum.

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