One of the most iconic tourist attractions in the United States, if not the world, is Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Who hasn’t seen photos of four of the more illustrious presidents gazing dramatically down over a nation they helped to build and expand. And who hasn’t, also, laughed at comic, or cartoon, versions of the faces depicted? But nobody laughs when viewing the real thing, it’s just that impressive. The images of four of our most famous presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln rise rather majestically from an apron of lush evergreens over the South Dakota landscape.
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The idea for such a monument first took shape in the mind of a South Dakota historian named Doane Robinson, but the monument has evolved greatly from its original conception. Robinson originally planned to have the faces of Western heroes, such as Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody, sculpted into granite rock formations known as the Needles, impressive granite spires found in the Black Hills. But this granite proved to be too unsuitable for carving, so an alternate site had to be found. That site proved to be Mount Rushmore, formerly known to the Lakota as “Six Grandfathers.” The mountain was christened Rushmore in 1885 by a lawyer from New York who led a prospecting expedition to the Black Hills.
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U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck, the same man who imagined and surveyed the Needles Highway, secured federal funding for the project in 1925, and work was soon under way. President Calvin Coolidge insisted that, along with Washington, there must be two Republican presidents represented, and one Democrat. Needless to say, Coolidge was a Republican. The actual work started in 1927, under the direction of Gutzon Borglum, assisted by his son, Lincoln. Three hundred men worked to coax the images from the rock, using dynamite for initial shaping, and hand chisels for more delicate work. Despite the fact that the work was extremely dangerous, working, as they were, with explosives and at altitude, not a single man lost his life on the project.
The Mount Rushmore we see today is not exactly as Borglum planned it. The figures were originally to be depicted from the waist up, not just head and shoulders. Borglum also planned to have a doorway nestled behind Lincoln’s hairline, leading to a depository for some of the nation’s most historical documents. All these ideas were discarded due to budget constraints, as was the addition of the image of women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony.
The monument came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service since 1933. The area abounds with wildlife such as bison, elk, raccoon, porcupine, mule deer, and the occasional skunk. Although mountain goats are not indigenous to the area, they can be found here, descendants of a herd which made their escape from the nearby Custer State Park. A trip to South Dakota is not complete without a trip to Mount Rushmore. Info is available online, so come and see for yourself.