George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Teddy Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln.
Those four 60-foot tall faces look out over the South Dakota Black Hills and draw almost 3 million visitors every year. But why are they even there? It turns out that behind the gargantuan granite relief is a complicated and surprising history.
Mount Rushmore Was Conceived as a Scheme to Boost Tourism
The discovery of gold in the 1870s prompted hordes of white settlers to invade the area, which was supposed to be sovereign territory of the Sioux Indians. New towns and new roads popped up, but it didn’t take long for the gold to go bust.
That left much of the burgeoning population struggling to make ends meet. In the 1920s, local historian Doane Robinson conceived a wild idea to carve a monument to American history in the side of a mountain. He started raising funds for his vision, which would become a roadside attraction and provide a boost to the local area. Turns out he was quite right about that.
The Sculptor Was in League With the KKK
One of the darker aspects of Mount Rushmore history is the fact that the sculptor Robinson hired was involved in some racist organizations. Gutzon Borglum was approached for the job while working on a similar project, Stone Mountain near Atlanta. That monument features heroes of the Confederacy and was financially backed by the local Ku Klux Klan. According to the Smithsonian Institute, Borglum grew close to the Klan, even becoming pen pals with the Grand Wizard.
Still, Borglum ended up in a dispute with the local Klansmen and was fired from the project after finishing only the head of Robert E. Lee. Borglum ended up smashing his models with an ax and leaving Georgia for good to start work on Mount Rushmore. Stone Mountain’s backers sandblasted Borglum’s work away and Stone Mountain was later finished by two different sculptors.
Mount Rushmore Was Technically Never Finished
It turns out carving giant faces into a granite mountain is harder than it sounds. According to the original plans for the monument, the four presidents were supposed to be depicted from the waist up. There were also plans to carve depictions of the Louisiana Purchase, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. At one point, they were even going to add a bust of Susan B. Anthony, but there wasn’t room for a fifth face.
This all proved way too difficult, and Borglum died in 1941 before the project could be finished. Lincoln Borglum, Gutzon’s son, took over the project, but after one season and a few finishing touches, he decided it was good enough—even if Abraham Lincoln was still missing an ear.
There's a Secret Room Behind Abraham Lincoln’s Head
It isn’t quite like the ending of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” but there is, in fact, a hidden room behind Abraham Lincoln’s face.
It was originally intended to be a Hall of Records, which would have housed important documents from American history. Like much of Mount Rushmore, it was never fully finished.
In the late 1990s, a repository was constructed inside the partially completed chamber. Copies of text and records that Borglum had wanted to include in the original hall were placed in the repository to preserve them for perpetuity. The chamber is inaccessible to tourists.
Mount Rushmore Was Named on a Whim
The Lakota Sioux called the mountain The Six Grandfathers, and sometimes Cougar Mountain. White settlers to the area took to calling it Slaughterhouse Rock, among other names.
Then one day in 1885, New York lawyer Charles Rushmore was on a hunting trip and asked one of his guides what the mountain was called. While versions of the story vary, either the guide or Rushmore made the joke that they should just call it Mount Rushmore. After that, there was no going back. The locals started calling it Mount Rushmore, and the name was officially recognized by the United States in 1930.
Rushmore would eventually become the monument’s biggest donor, contributing $5,000 towards its construction fund.
American Indians Attempted to Take the Mountain Back in the 1970s
In 1868, the United States signed a treaty with the Lakota people giving them the Black Hills for perpetuity. Of course, when General Custer’s expedition discovered gold, the treaty was completely ignored and resulted in the Great Sioux War of 1876.
On June 6, 1971, activists from the American Indian Movement scaled the monument and occupied the site. Armed with baseball bats, they set up camp and demanded the U.S. government honor the original treaty and return the land to the Lakota people. Park rangers called in the National Guard. After more than 12 hours the soldiers broke up the camp, arresting several of the protestors. The charges were later dropped.
No One Died Constructing Mount Rushmore
Surprisingly enough, there were no reported deaths during the construction of Mount Rushmore.
That’s quite the feat considering construction took place over 14 years and involved 400 workers. Workers had to climb more than 500 steps each day to reach the site. The work was plenty dangerous, with workers using dynamite to blast more than 500,000 tons of stone and others dangling from ropes to carve features using jackhammers.
However, many workers died later on from silicosis, including the chief carver Lou Del Bianco. Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust and causes severe scarring and inflammation to lung tissue.