In December 1923, Doane Robinson had an idea. He wanted to see a great sculpture of American heroes such as General Custer, Sioux warriors, Lewis & Clark and Buffalo Bill carved into the Needles (a formation of granite spires) of South Dakota.
Senator Peter Norbeck undertook the challenge of garnering support for the project and in August 1924, Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was asked to sculpt the monument. Borglum had studied under August Rodin and insisted the figures to be carved be those of national, not local, heroes. Together the men chose George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to be represented in the mammoth sculpture as a declaration of American values and determination.
Borglum investigated the best location for the monument. He found the Needles too brittle to carve and decided that Harney Peak was the perfect site. Senator Norbeck and Congressman William Williamson ensured federal permission to build the sculpture. State permission was denied until March of 1925.
Borglum returned to South Dakota after an artistic fiasco with the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial he was creating in Georgia. He scouted Mount Rushmore as the exact site for the monument. Mt. Rushmore was named after attorney Charles Rushmore in 1885. Borglum tested the composition of the mountain. The politicians tried to raise funds for the project, but when Borglum was offered ample federal funds, he asked for only half of his estimate, convinced he could raise the remaining half privately.
In Spring 1927, President Calvin Coolidge visited South Dakota to learn to fish. Locals secretly placed more fish in the waters to help the President’s chances of catching a nibble. Meanwhile, Borglum and the local politicians convinced the President to support the Mount Rushmore project. The President dedicated the cornerstone as Borglum drilled six holes in the mountain to mark the start of the sculpture on August 10th, 1927. President Coolidge signed the bill securing federal funds for the Mount Rushmore project on February 25th, 1929.
Gutzon Borglum was 60 years old when he began the carving. He built a 1:12 scale model of the sculpture and used Greek point methods to measure the carving placement on the mountain. Gutzon employed some 400 local workers to assist in the sculpting, all of whom were grateful to be employed during the Depression years from 1927 to 1941.
Nearly 450,000 tons of rock was taken from the mountain, 90% of which was removed by dynamite explosions. Borglum and his men became impressively skilled with blasting and were able to detonate explosions within inches of the sculpture.
The Mount Rushmore monument took 14 years to complete. Severe winter weather forced work to cease until spring. Inconsistent financial funding interrupted work also. In 1930, South Dakota tried to raise funds in schools, asking a dime from grammar school students and a quarter from High School students. They only raised $1700. Since fundraising was unsuccessful, Borglum’s plan to carve words into the mountain was discarded.
Borglum often left the Rushmore site to travel and complete other artworks. His son, Lincoln remained to supervise the project. In 1938, Borglum began to hollow a cavern behind the sculpture to create a Hall of Records.
Gutzon Borglum died on March 6th, 1941, before the vault was completed. Lincoln completed the finishing touches on each 60-foot long head of the monument within months of his father’s death. October 31st, 1941 was the last day of carving.
The cost of the monument was $989,992.32 of which $836,000 was provided by federal funds. Borglum estimated the cost at only $500,000.
On July 4th, 1930, the sculpture of George Washington was unveiled from beneath a 40 foot by 72 foot large flag made by local women. Washington’s nose is 20 feet long, his eyes 11 feet wide each.
On August 30th, 1936 the image of Thomas Jefferson was dedicated. Jefferson’s mouth is 18 feet across.
On September 17th, 1937 Abraham Lincoln’s likeness was dedicated.
On July 2nd, 1939 the carving of Theodore Roosevelt was dedicated. Roosevelt’s moustache is 20 feet wide.