The Construction Of Mount Rushmore Is Way More Interesting Than You Ever Realized

Who built Mount Rushmore? How long did it take to build Mount Rushmore? The answers to these questions are far more complicated than most people realize, and the seemingly innocent American landmark has a history full of controversy and disagreement. The project, as originally conceived, was vastly different than what stands in place today. The politics and history of sculptor Gutzon Borglum shaped the project, and many of his decisions are still hotly debated today. 

How Mount Rushmore was made is a story that starts in the 1920s. Originally a project meant to entice tourism to South Dakota, Mount Rushmore became an ambitious endeavor meant to honor the history, culture, and spirit of America in general. Construction spanned nearly two decades and the project never quite lived up to its zealous intentions. Still, Mount Rushmore remains an iconic American landmark. Reading up on the history of the monument will leave you with a newfound appreciation of its complexity. 

  • Mount Rushmore's Sculptor Harbored White Supremacist Views
    Photo: Archives of American Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Mount Rushmore's Sculptor Harbored White Supremacist Views

    While Gutzon Borglum had no formal ties to the confederacy, he had some white supremacist beliefs that fit in with ideals of the Civil War-era South. He wrote of his fear of racial impurity in personal letters, worrying about a “mongrel horde” destroying the “Nordic” purity of the American West. While it is unclear if Borglum was actually a member of the Klu Klux Klan, he worked closely with Klan members when working on the Stone Mountain carvings memorializing the Confederacy and seemed sympathetic to their politics.

  • Each President Represented A Specific Aspect Of American History
    Photo: National Park Service Image Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Each President Represented A Specific Aspect Of American History

    Sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose presidents he believed would reflect the spirit of America. Wanting the sculpture to represent the full scope of American identity, he selected the four presidents he felt most thoroughly represented the country.

    Washington was chosen as he represented the founding of the nation. Jefferson was selected for his part expanding the country with the Louisiana Purchase. Lincoln was honored for keeping the country together throughout the Civil War, and Roosevelt was depicted for his part in making America a world power.

  • Ninety Percent Of The Carving Was Done With Dynamite
    Photo: Rise Studio, Rapid City, S. Dak. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ninety Percent Of The Carving Was Done With Dynamite

    About 90% of the carving process was done with dynamite. Workers blasted off portions of the mountain to carve the rough shapes of each face before adding finer features by hand once they got down to the softer, more workable stone.

    After several controlled blasts, workers used jackhammers to make honeycomb patterns in the remaining layers of hardened rock to weaken in. Hard rock could then be removed by hand, allowing workers to finally get down to the softer surface.

  • Mount Rushmore's Sculptor Was Involved With A Highly Controversial Project Honoring The Confederacy

    Prior to taking on the Mount Rushmore project, Gutzon Borglum worked on a controversial sculpture with the Daughters of the Confederacy. Borglum was commissioned to carve a figure into Georgia’s Stone Mountain of Robert E. Lee. Borglum, however, suggested a bigger project that would feature Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis surrounded by thousands of soldiers. He believed a project of this magnitude would take eight years and $2 million to complete and the Daughters of the Confederacy began seeking out funding.

    The second iteration of the Klu Klux Klan in America, inspired by the release of Birth of a Nation, held their first meeting on top of Stone Mountain on November 25th, 1915. The Klan itself would eventually fund some of the carving’s costs, adding to the project’s controversy. There was even talk of depicting the Klan in the memorial as a means of honoring the organization, or at least carving a special room for Klan meetings somewhere in Stone Mountain. However, these and other plans fell through due to infighting, creative disputes, and delays brought on by World War I.

    Borglum was fired from the project on February 25th, 1925 after he was asked to design Mount Rushmore. At this point, only Lee’s head had been completed. Borglum destroyed the models he had made, integral to his project’s completion, and sponsors of the Stone Mountain project had Borglum’s work sandblasted. A smaller scale sketching – including only Lee, Jefferson, and Jackson – was completed by various other artists over the following years.

  • Workers Earned Modest Wages, Despite The Grueling Nature Of The Work

    Workers typically earned between 45 and 75 cents an hour, which came out to about 8 dollars a day. Rushmore was built between 1927 and 1941. Accounting for inflation, workers would have made somewhere between $112 and $139 by today’s standards.

  • The Original Plan For Mount Rushmore Was Entirely Different Than What We See Today
    Photo: National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Original Plan For Mount Rushmore Was Entirely Different Than What We See Today

    As first conceived, Mount Rushmore was going to be carved into the granite needles near Harney Peak, the tallest mountain in South Dakota, and not the titular mountain. Doane Robinson, the official state historian of South Dakota, wanted to bring in more visitors to the state. Robinson felt adding a national landmark could help bolster tourism and wanted to make a sculpture celebrating the American West.

    Robinson envisioned a statue depicting Western figures like Red Cloud, Lewis and Clark, and Buffalo Bill Cody. However, after Gutzon Borglum signed on as the sculptor, plans changed. Finding the needles insufficient for sculpting, Gutzon instead decided to carve into Mount Rushmore. He wanted a landmark with more national appeal, and suggested carving national figures into the mountain instead of Western icons.