Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Classic Projects: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Find out why Mount Rushmore is a classic

One of the most recognisable symbols of the USA, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, is also one of its greatest tourist attractions. More than three million people a year flock to the granite sculpture in South Dakota’s Black Hills to look upon the likenesses of four of the most influential American presidents in history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt form the ‘shrine to democracy’, a project that took 400 workers 14 years to complete, and involved the removal of 450,000 tonnes of rock.

The memorial, though always intended to be a tourist attraction, was not originally destined for its current location. A nearby site called the Needles was earmarked initially, but the quality of the granite wasn’t considered high enough to sustain the elaborate civil engineering project, while also attracting strong protests from local Native American groups. Local historian Doane Robinson had devised an idea to sculpt the Needles with figures of American heroes such as Red Cloud, the Sioux Chief, and Buffalo Bill Cody. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was drafted in to carry through the project, upon whose suggestion senior politicians were preferred in order to boost the monument’s viability as an attraction. Carving began on 10 August 1927.

Borglum was an unorthodox stonemason, but had been selected for his experience in similar large-scale projects, such as his earlier carving experience of Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain. The miner, geologist, explosives expert and engineer required a cliff face of 400-500ft (120-150m), south-west facing and leaning back (to catch as much sunlight as possible), with an acre of unblemished and upright surface to allow for the carving of the detail. The sculptor personally scaled the mountains to mark the exact positions of features such as noses and eyes in red paint.

To get the proportions right, Borglum constructed five-foot-tall models of the head and then projected these dimensions into his calculations at a ratio of 12:1, and so ended up with the faces being 60ft (18m) tall. Borglum used a ‘pointing machine’ (a contraption made from a central mast, protractor, horizontal axis and plumb-bob) to transfer his calculations to the rock face, which was then roughly hewn into egg shapes to represent the heads.

These ovals were then divided into three sections: one at the eyebrow line, another at the nose end and a third at the chin end. The process continued with the facial contours created by drilling holes into the rock of up to 2m, which were then packed with dynamite charges to blow away smaller layers of rock. The final facing was done with pneumatic hammers in a process called ‘bumping’ by workers suspended on ropes.

Although many American persons of note were considered for inclusion in the monument, the final roll call settled on four former presidents. George Washington was the first president and represents the foundation of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson was, with the Louisiana Purchase, America’s greatest nation-builder and also the author of the Declaration of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt is included for his achievements in the nation’s industrial development, while Abraham Lincoln, as the sitting president during the American Civil War, represents the preservation of the nation at all costs.

The monument is controversial for Native Americans, who regard the Black Hills as theirs under the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Yet the memorial continues to symbolise America.

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