Western South Dakota isn't lacking in incredible sights. There are the Badlands and the Needles of the Black Hills, and those are just the starters. But the highlight of any trip to this land of Native American history and odd rock outcroppings is a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial where giant carved heads of four former presidents keep vigil.
The majestic sculpture celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016, though its stony faces remain much the same as they did when its construction was completed in 1941. The 60-foot-high granite monument features the towering head portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Here are a few things about Mount Rushmore you might not know.
Presidential Images Were Not the First Choice
Mount Rushmore was the brainchild of South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson who was moved to memorialize and carve iconic historical figures into a mountainside. He wanted to promote tourism to a region of the state that was otherwise mostly ignored and came up with the idea of the massive project in 1923. Robinson's initial plans did not include the political figures admired at the monument today.
Robinson thought a carved tribute featuring Western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Lakota leader Chief Red Cloud was the perfect choice for the location. He enlisted the help of renowned American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who convinced him the monument would be better received if it had a more national focus. They settled on four presidents who they felt best represented the country.
It Was Built Using a Lot of Dynamite
Visitors to Mount Rushmore stand in awe of its grandeur and scale. Little do they know of the enormity of Robinson and Borglum's pet undertaking in real-time. The project employed over 400 men and took fourteen years to complete. Most of the men were miners who had come to South Dakota in search of the promised gold in the Black Hills.
An incredible 450,000 tons of rock had to be removed for the project. It was decided the best way to do this was with dynamite, so 90 percent of the monument was carved in this way. Once the blasting was completed, the finer details of the sculpture were attended to. This entailed lowering finishers down the 500-foot face of the mountainside in bosun chairs. It was dangerous work, yet thankfully, no one was seriously injured or killed.
It Has Been Known by Several Names
The mountain containing the carving has been known by several different names throughout the years. The Sioux called it Six Grandfathers after the earth, sky, and four cardinal directions. American settlers in the area referred to it as Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain, or Keystone Cliffs. It wasn't until 1930 that the beloved icon became officially named and recognized as Mount Rushmore.
The mountain was actually named after New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore, who passed through on his way back from a business trip. When he found out the mountain had no official designation, he thought it would be a good idea to name it after him. The wealthy investor eventually got his way.
Mount Rushmore Is a Controversial Monument
The Lakota Sioux were promised an area that included the Black Hills in perpetuity by the U.S. government in the Treaty of 1868, but forever only lasted until gold was discovered in the 1870s. The land was subsequently taken back by force, adding to the ongoing conflicts of the time between the government and the Plains Indians. In South Dakota specifically, the Battle of Wounded Knee was a grievous defeat for the Native Americans.
The Sioux still consider the Black Hills area as sacred ground. To some, the monument represents the oppression faced by the Native Americans. Visitors to South Dakota can pay homage to the history of the area by also visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, a still-in-progress sculpture that, once completed, will be the world's largest sculpture at 641 feet long and 563 feet tall.
The Monument Once Had Its Own Baseball Team
Gutzon Borglum's son Lincoln, who also worked on the project, was a big baseball fan. He socialized with the daily workers by talking baseball and sharing friendly banter while keeping up with the scores on the radio. Their common love for the sport prompted the Borglums to organize an amateur team. Workers became vetted for their ability to handle a baseball bat as well as a jackhammer.
The local community enthusiastically cheered the newly-formed baseball team called the Rushmore Drillers. The team was good enough to make it to the semi-finals of the State Amateur Baseball Tournament in the late 1930s. Even though they placed third, Borglum hosted both the Drillers and their opponents at his home for dinner and more sports talk. The team disbanded when work on the monument was completed.
It Has a Secret Room
Borglum wanted to add a secret room behind the monument where important documents and historical memorabilia could be stored. The so-called Hall of Records would be accessed by an 800-foot granite staircase with a giant bronze eagle over the door leading to the secret room.
Only part of the tunnel had been blasted when the funds ran out in 1939. The idea of a Hall of Records dwindled following Borglum's death in 1941 and the official declaration of the monument's completion. It was rejuvenated again in 1998 when the National Park Service finished what was started long ago and installed Mount Rushmore's best-known secret. Items of interest continue to be placed there for future discovery.