If the election season has you shaken and stirred, Mount Rushmore stands ready with presidential politics served on the rocks.
Behold the massive head sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, clustered in perhaps the most famous way imaginable. Steadily they gaze over the needle-pointed Black Hills of western South Dakota with their, well, fixed expressions.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in the heartland not quite halfway from West Coast to East Coast, was completed 75 years ago this fall. It is considered by many Americans to symbolize the heart of patriotism.
On warm summer evenings, visitors gather in an amphitheater below the carvings to honor our country. On their way there from the largely covered parking lot (which wintertime visitors no doubt appreciate), they pass through the well-conceived Avenue of Flags. All 50 states are represented.
It makes for a stirring approach.
At one point in the sundown ceremony, military veterans are called to the stage to share their name and branch of service. They stand proudly, and the crowd cheers.
What did those four presidents, whom my young daughter calls “the men on the mountain,” do to deserve such an honor? John Perkins of Indianapolis, who with wife Christine was visiting Mount Rushmore for the first time, had an answer when we spoke one weekday morning last month on the Grand View Terrace just behind the amphitheater.
The memorial, he said, “reminds us of our history and the importance of these specific presidents in our nation’s history. You know Washington got the formation of the country and he had to make the Constitution work. Jefferson opened up the West. Then you take Roosevelt, he was the man, his presidency changed the presidency from what it was before. And of course Lincoln, he’s the one that preserved the union.”
I’m just very interested in the history of our country. As a citizen, I think this is an important thing for every American to know.
Indianapolis resident John Perkins, a first-time visitor
“You have a certain presidential passion about you,” I said. “Are you a teacher? What’s your interest in this?” Christine Perkins laughed, perhaps reacting to some inside-marriage awareness of John’s propensity to improvise so lucidly.
“No. I’m just very interested in the history of our country. As a citizen, I think this is an important thing for every American to know.”
Depending on the visitor, one’s first impression upon seeing the heads atop Mount Rushmore can range anywhere from awe to “how odd.” Each of us arrives with our own lineage, interest and historical knowledge. And much like the memorial’s ceremony that straddles the transition from day to night, any general account of Mount Rushmore should supplement bright praise with a nod to the site’s undeniably darker aspects.
Drill, baby, drill
Tom Brokaw, who was born in Webster, a small town in northeastern South Dakota, narrates a 14-minute introductory film that is shown throughout the day indoors, under the Grand View Terrace. He begins:
“It was, critics say, a preposterous idea. An outrage against South Dakota’s Black Hills. What arrogant stone carver could possibly improve upon God’s mountain sculpture? But as the faces of the great men sprang lifelike from the mountain, Rushmore simply overwhelmed its critics, and dazzled the world. Just as the republican ideals and honor had inspired and dazzled mankind in 1776.”
Brokaw recounts that South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson is credited with spearheading the memorial in 1923, when he proposed that Black Hills spires be carved in likenesses of Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, Chief Red Cloud “or other Western heroes.”
90The percentage of Mount Rushmore carving done by dynamite
The man who was hired to perform the work, then-60-year-old artist and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, thought the spires were too weathered, and instead sought a suitable cliffside. He rejected Robinson’s list of carving candidates.
“Borglum argued that a monument on this scale should represent our entire national experience,” Brokaw says. “His final concept would be a tribute to the founding, preservation, growth and development of the nation. These events would be symbolized by the images of four Americans who never lost sight of the simple idea that man has a right to be free, and to be happy.”
The mountain was dedicated for the project on Aug. 10, 1927. Newsreel footage shows President Calvin Coolidge handing a set of drill bits to Borglum. Fourteen years later, several months after Borglum’s death, his son Lincoln (now there’s a coincidence!) Borglum oversaw the work’s completion. The final drilling took place on Halloween 1941.
The carving process, detailed in the film and in a couple of on-site galleries, took 6 1/2 years total as winter weather and funding hiccups idled the site for the balance of those 14 years. Hundreds of men, mostly locals, earned 30 cents to $1.50 per hour for their labors, much of which they performed in swing-set-like chairs that dangled over the mountaintop. They used dynamite to remove half a million tons of rock, which is haphazardly piled beneath the memorial.
How safe was that work? Allow me to quote from my tray table in Mount Rushmore’s cafeteria, once I set aside my plate of fried potatoes to read the script:
“The drillers had respirators, but they did not always wear them because they plugged up with dust. The workers did not have hard hats or steel-toed boots and a wad of cotton was the best ear plug of the time. There were many bumps and bruises and some close calls, but no fatalities.”
21The length of the George Washington sculpture’s nose, in feet
That clean safety record is impressive. And the finished product is impressively popular, not just in classrooms where American history is taught, but also in popular culture (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, “North by Northwest,” rather absurdly climaxes there) and, of course, in tourism. According to the National Park Service, Mount Rushmore National Memorial drew 2.44 million visitors in 2015, ranking 36th in the NPS domain – one spot above Glacier National Park in Montana, and one behind Rock Creek Park. (I had not heard of that latter site; perhaps you have, if you have encountered it inside the Washington, D.C., beltway.)
The Brokaw-narrated visitors center film ends with soaring, upbeat verbiage. It lacks any hint of disapproval, but as old-time radio man Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story.
The Black Hills, a small mountain range that tops out at 7,242 feet, for thousands of years was home to American Indians. In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty between native peoples and the U.S. government (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was on the negotiating team) essentially promised that the Lakota Sioux would enjoy sole ownership of the Black Hills in perpetuity.
Perpetuity, in this case, lasted only a few years. Prospectors ignored any notion of Indian proprietary rights of the Black Hills when they got wind, in the early 1870s, of the presence of gold. War erupted, punctuated in 1876 by Gen. George Custer’s annihilation at Little Big Horn in Montana, a rapid rebound by government troops, and U.S. annexation of the Black Hills in 1877.
A century later, in 1980, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandated that the eight tribes displaced by that annexation be awarded $105 million. Tribal representatives refused the payment, insisting instead that their homeland be returned. Bitterness, anger and regret, emotions that depend on where one stands on this issue, remain sharply present today.
How the four sculpted presidents interacted with American Indians is a source of controversy, too. Consider what journalist Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota who was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, wrote in the Lakota Country Times in 2008:
“Abraham Lincoln gave the go-ahead to the U.S. Army to hang 38 Dakota warriors in Minnesota in the largest mass hanging in the history of America. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, signed on to the Louisiana Purchase, a deal that took millions of acres of land from many Indian tribes without their approval, including South Dakota, and in the end, caused misery, suffering, death and poverty that is felt by the Native Americans of this region even to this day.
“And we should not forget that the man known as the father of this country (at least to the white people), George Washington, ordered the extermination of the Indian people of New England.”
I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.
President Theodore Roosevelt
Those are striking observations, but something Theodore Roosevelt said during his presidency was more starkly lacking in humanity. After he met with Apache legend Geronimo, who for the last 24 years of his long life was essentially a prisoner of war, Roosevelt had this to say:
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Mount Rushmore does not ignore such touchy matters entirely. Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian reared on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, was the national memorial’s supervisor from 2004 until 2010. He introduced an American Indian interpretive program, and though he brought native pride to the job, he also promoted an ambiance of conciliation.
“We have stories that are very hard to tell; we have stories that are very hard to listen to,” Baker said after the interpretive program was launched a decade ago. “Primarily, the reactions have been very positive but there are always those few that condemn; they didn’t want to hear about the American Indian plight, or they don’t want to hear about the breaking of treaties. Because it happened a long time ago, it doesn’t affect us today. And I believe it still affects us today.”
In addition to the problematic American Indian issues, Mount Rushmore National Memorial’s creation story has this nasty twist: The site’s visionary sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was a muckety-muck in the Ku Klux Klan.
Before his involvement at Rushmore, he was the leading artistic force at Stone Mountain, Georgia’s cliffside carving that showcases heroes of the Confederacy. He clashed with his Klan sponsors over finances, though, and quit early.
Come to think of it, maybe this year’s presidential race is a safer topic for all concerned.
Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell at 916-321-1163.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
The site is 23 miles south of downtown Rapid City, S.D., which has myriad lodging options. Keystone, three miles from the memorial, bustles during summertime with motels, restaurants and museums.
Mount Rushmore grounds are open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.; all the site’s amenities are open at least part of the day for 364 days a year (Christmas excepted). A half-mile Presidential Trail off the Grand View Terrace is extensively wheelchair-accessible. Parking costs $11 per vehicle, and is good for one year.
For more information, go to www.nps.gov/moru.
Can’t get enough cliffside carving? Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial, a work in progress since 1948 that is 16 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore. For details, go to crazyhorsememorial.org.
The core four: Fun facts and quotes
Theodore Roosevelt, who as a child witnessed Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York, said, “The only time you really live fully is from 30 to 60. The young are slaves to dreams; the old, servants of regrets.”