Story and photos by ANN BUSH
“Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what matter of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.” -Gutzon Borglum
Standing in front of stately white granite pillars and multi-colored flags from every state flowing in the breeze, I stare in awe as four American presidents stare back. I am at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Often referred to as “The Shrine,” Mount Rushmore is a masterpiece of patriotism. But that was not the original plan. In 1923, South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson suggested carving American explorers and Native Americans into a mountain to draw tourists to South Dakota.
Gutzon Borglum, a popular and successful sculptor, was commissioned to oversee the project. Borglum instead envisioned carving four presidents to commemorate the “foundation, preservation and continental expansion of the United States.”
Finding the right mountain was key. The Black Hills Wilderness is full of rugged spirals of granite, some over 7,000-feet high. Rising 5,725 feet, Mount Rushmore, was idea because its granite is solid and it has an open face that both receives a lot of sunlight and could accommodate a large carving.
President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the launch of the project in 1927. It took workers 14 years to finish it.
The most prominent of the four faces is George Washington, commander of the Revolutionary Army and the first president. Beside him is the third president, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and mastermind of the Louisiana Purchase. To the far right is the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership restored the Union and ended slavery on U.S. soil. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, was included because he promoted the Panama Canal and progressive programs involving conservation and economic reform.
As I stroll along the Avenue of Flags, I chat with others and we photograph one another under our respective state flag. The avenue opens to the Grand Terrace overlooking an amphitheater that comes alive with a patriotic music and a laser show in evenings during the summer.
Under the terrace is the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, one of the finest interpretive museums in the national park system. The center houses artifacts from the project, a 14-minute film, bookstore and hands-on exhibits.
It reveals that Borglum, while studying art in Paris, learned portraiture from sculptor Auguste Rodin. Borglum built models based on life masks, paintings, photographs and descriptions of the presidents. Transferring the scale of models to the mountain was all about math. One inch on the models equaled one foot on the mountain.
Borglum designed a machine where a weighted plumb line hung from a bar centered on the top of the carvings. The line slid left and right and up and down to make precise on-scale measurements on the mountain.
The only way carvers could shape the faces was to remove stone. Dynamite specialist from around the nation proved valuable in figuring out how much dynamite was needed to remove the exact amount of granite desired.
Once a blast removed a large portion of granite, workers suspended by cables in swing-like chairs used pneumatic drills to nearly achieve the depth desired. Workers then chipped away with chisels to reach the exact depth and used pneumatic hammers to create a smooth finish.
Borglum’s attention to detail gives humanity to the carvings. The pupils of the eyes are shallow recessions. The resulting shadows appear to be the dark pupil of an eye. This brilliant design makes the eyes sparkle and brings the presidents to life.
I could not resist taking a walk along the Presidential Nature Trail. Less than a mile long, the trail leads to viewing sites near a slope right below the faces. Within a stone’s throw of Washington’s collar, I am again in awe.
As I walk down the wooden walkway stained from rain and millions of hands running along the rail, I sense eight famous eyes following me.