In the Black Hills of South Dakota, majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are said to tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country.

But how much do you know about Mount Rushmore National Memorial?  Even if you think you know the basics, there’s a whole lot more that may knock your socks off.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.Mount Rushmore — National Park Service Website

The real history of Mount Rushmore — Star Tribune

The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore — Smithsonian

Doane Robinson — PBS American Experience


In the Black Hills of South Dakota, majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are said to tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country.

But how much do you know about Mount Rushmore National Memorial? I’d venture to guess that most people can name those four presidents, and can tell you where it is, but do you know the history behind it? Even if you think you know the basics, there’s a whole lot more that may knock your socks off.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


Minnesota farmer Doanne Robinson became disillusioned with the life of tending to crops, and thought he’d try his hand at being a lawyer. Needing a place to practice, he headed for the new state of South Dakota. But it was really books he loved, and a second career change found him digging into history, eventually being appointed a job as South Dakota’s state historian. He wrote about and recorded the events of the state, as well as biographies of important people.

At that time, tourism to the Black Hills region was already booming. An island of dark evergreen mountains and grey stone, The Black Hills rise out of nowhere at the edge of the vast Dakota prairie, and were nearly as popular at the turn of the 20th century as they are today.

Robinson wasn’t convinced that nature was enough though, and concocted an idea to draw even more tourism dollars to his state. He wanted to do something big. The towering spire rock formations known as the needles that pepper the Black Hills looked to him a bit like people, and, inspired by a massive rock carving in Georgia, he thought that many of the needles could be carved into the likeness of famous western figures like Buffalo Bill and Lewis and Clark.
Hold on a minute. I don’t think we can gloss over the inspiration for Doane Robinson’s wild idea. That massive rock carving in Georgia is called Stone Mountain. You may have heard of it. It’s the largest bas-relief in the world, so sure, it’s impressive, but it depicts three different American figures, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. It’s a monument celebrating the Confederacy, and even if you hold the belief that revering southern Civil War figures is an important piece of history, Stone Mountain is a bit more than that. It’s the site of the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. It was purchased by the State of Georgia in 1958, which opened Stone Mountain Park on April 14, 1965 … proudly marking the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Ok, back to Doane Robinson’s idea
In 1923 Robinson wrote to one of America’s best sculptors, Lorado Taft. Taft sculpted seminal works as a part of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as a likeness of George Washington at the University of Washington in Seattle, and “Defense of the Flag” in Jackson, Michigan. Not only was he a well-known sculpter, he was a patriotic one. His works mostly documented American history, making him perfect for Robinson’s spires. Unfortunately Taft was ill. So Robinson tapped another sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.

The son of Danish immigrants, Gutzon Borglum was born in 1867 in St. Charles in what was then Idaho Territory. A child of Mormon polygamy, His father Jens was married to a pair of sisters, Christina and Ida, and had children with both. Jens Borglum decided to leave Mormonism, divorcing Gutzon’s mother Christina, but keeping the family together as he moved them around Missouri and Nebraska.

After a brief stint at Saint Mary’s College, Gutzon Borglum relocated to Omaha, where he apprenticed in a machine shop and graduated from Creighton Preparatory School. Inspired by his younger brother, he developed an interest in sculpture and went to Los Angeles to study the art. In 1889 Borglum married one of his mentors Elizabeth Janes, who was 19 years older. The Borglums spent the next ten years studying and exhibiting in Europe where they became acquainted with Auguste Rodin and learned from his impressionistic light-catching surfaces. Gutzon Borglum’s works were accepted to the 1891 and the 1892 Paris Salons. After moving back to California, the Borglum’s then went to England to study together again, where marital troubles had them separated in 1903 and divorced in 1908.

By now Gutzon Borglum had sculpted saints and apostles for the new Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, he had a group sculpture accepted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art— the first sculpture by a living American the museum had ever purchased. He also won the Logan Medal of the Arts.

In 1909 he would marry for a second time, to Mary Montgomery Williams, with whom he had three children. In 1925, the sculptor moved to Texas to work on a commissioned monument to cowboy trail drivers. He completed the model in 1925, but due to lack of funds it was not cast until 1940, at a fourth of it’s planned size. Gutzon Borglum was obsessed with large scale. He crafted a massive head of Abraham Lincoln, carved from a six-ton block of marble, which was exhibited in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House and can be found in the United States Capitol Crypt in Washington, D.C.

In addition to scale, Borglum was obsessed with the ideas of patriotism and nationalism. He looked to create art that he said was “American, drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement,” according to a 1908 interview article. And his temperament was perfect for the competitive environment surrounding the contracts for public buildings and monuments.

So Gutzon Borglom may have been even more ideal for Doane Robinson’s plans for South Dakota than Lorado Taft. Borglum met Robinson….
Hi…me again. That’s the backstory of Gutzon Borglum you’ll get in most quick histories, or even if you visit Mount Rushmore. What you may not hear about is why he was available to drop everything to go visit Doane Robinson in South Dakota to work on a project that would surely last decades… He had just abandoned the Stone Mountain Project. He had been commissioned to do the carving, but infighting in the KKK stalled fundraising. But Borglum wasn’t just a hired gun sculptor. There’s no proof he actually joined the KKK, but it’s possible-to-likely that he did. He was at the very least, heavily involved with the orgainization, and had written several highly racist remarks. In letters, he brooded about a “mongrel horde” -referring to indigeoenous people – overrunning the “Nordic” purity of the West.

When Robinson approached Borglum, it enraged the Stone Mountain backers, who fired him on February 25 from the project that was unfunded anyway. Borglum took an ax to his models for the shrine, and fled to North Carolina with a mob of angry KKK members on his heels. He’d eventually renounce the organization. Ok, back to the story.


Borglum met Robinson and agreed to the project but suggested that the subjects be national figures instead of western ones, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Robinson introduced a bill into the state legislature to authorize carving in Custer State Park and asking for funds to begin surveying the site. The funds were refused, but permission was granted. On Borglum’s second visit in 1925, he announced that he would not carve the spires of the Needles, as they weren’t quite big enough, nor was the rock suitable. He would find an appropriate large, solid mountain to carve instead, and eventually landed on Mount Rushmore.

Originally known to the Lakota Sioux as “The Six Grandfathers” or “Cougar Mountain” the site was renamed after Charles E. Rushmore, a New York lawyer, during an expedition in 1885. After Borglum decided on Rushmore, Robinson, then 69 years old, joined a party in scaling the mountain with Senator Peter Norbeck. The two would work to shepherd the project, with Robinson in charge of managing the headstrong Borglum.
JASON: ….So, I think we need to mention here that the land didn’t belong to South Dakota. As Six Grandfathers, the mountain was part of the route that Lakota leader Black Elk took in a spiritual journey that culminated at Black Elk Peak. Following a series of military campaigns from 1876 to 1878, the United States asserted control over the area, a claim that is still disputed, since the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 granted the Lakota a broad a 60-million-acre region encompassing all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River — including the Black Hills. Clearly, that didn’t hold up. Mount Rushmore, with its faces of men who may have been great figures of American history, but all perpetrated terrible actions toward indigenous people, now face towards a tiny Lakota Reservation to the Southeast. Native Americans railed against the idea of the monument, as did a whole lot of other South Dakotans. Let’s continue

ABIGAIL: Well before sculpting began, Gutzon Borglum decided to hold a ceremony, a spectical dedicating the monument. He wired to Doanne Robinson “SHALL BRING SOME COSTUMES FOR CEREMONIES CAN YOU GET A FEW REAL INDIANS FOR SPECTATORS … ” But on the planned day of the ceremony, Borglum didn’t show. Robinson wired: “BORGLUM DID NOT ARRIVE … DO YOU KNOW HIS PLANS … SPECTATORS AND INDIANS HARD TO HOLD.” The ceremony was rescheduled, and at it, Robinson’s spoke to the crowd: “Americans! Stand uncovered in humility and reverence, before the majesty of this mighty mountain!”

Borglum, Robinson, and Norbek raised enough private funding to begin the project, even with Borglum telling locals that South Dakotans would not shoulder the brunt of the financing, this being a national memorial. They did, however, even if voluntarily, making Robinson feel like a fool or a liar. In 1929, president Calvin Coolidge’s signed a bill giving appropriations to Rushmore and creating a commission to oversee the project. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission was led by a dozen important men — but left behind Doane Robinson. He was heartbroken. Later in the year, a Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society was formed to solicit additional funds, and Robinson was put in charge of the effort, which still exists today. He retired as state historian, and became a farmer once again.

On October 4, 1927 sculpting began, based on a model created by Borglum, and overseen directly by him. Nearly 400 men and women had to endure conditions that varied from blazing hot to bitter cold and windy. Each day they climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain to punch-in on the time clock. Then 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500-foot face of the mountain in a bosun chair, like a modern day playground swing. Some of the workers admitted being uneasy with heights, but during the Depression, any job was a good job.

The work was dangerous. 90% of the mountain was carved using dynamite . The powdermen would cut and set charges of specific sizes to remove precise amounts of rock. Before the charges could be set off, the workers would have to be cleared from the mountain. Workers in the winch house on top of the mountain would hand crank the winches to raise and lower the drillers. If they went too fast, the drillers in their bosun chairs would be dragged up on their faces. To keep this from happening, young men and boys were hired as call boys. Call boys sat at the edge of the mountain and shouted messages back and forth, like a fire brigade, to help ensure safety. During the 14 years of construction, not one fatality occurred.

Dynamite was utilized until only three to six inches of rock was left to remove to get to the final carving surface. At this point, the drillers and assistant carvers would drill holes into the granite every couple inches in a process called honeycombing. The holes would weaken the granite so it could be removed often by hand and chisel.

After the honeycombing, the workers smoothed the surface of the faces with a hand facer or bumper tool, evening up the granite, creating a surface as smooth as a sidewalk.

Originally, three men were chosen to be depicted on Rushmore – Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Undoubtedly three of our most famous presidents. Washington was the founding father of our country and the first president – an obvious choice. Jefferson – The author of the Declaration of Independence and the man responsible for the country’s expansion via the Louisiana Purchase. And Lincoln was Borglum’s favorite president. Not so much for ending slavery, but for keeping the country together during the Civil War.

They were to be depicted to their waists, as if their massive bodies were walking among giants. Jefferson would be to the left of Washington and Lincoln to the right. And to the right of all three presidents — an entablature in the shape of the Louisiana purchase commemorating in eight-foot-tall gilded letters the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, and seven other territorial acquisitions.

After the work on Jefferson had begun, the rock was found to be unsuitable, so it was blown up, and a new figure was sculpted on the other side of Washington. Lincoln was moved to the location that was supposed to show the entablature, leaving a giant gap between Jefferson and Lincoln. Enough room to add a fourth president: Theodore Roosevelt. Borglum chose Roosevelt to represent the development of the United States. Roosevelt provided leadership through rapid economic growth into the 20th Century. He was instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal, and was known as the “trust buster” for his work to end large corporate monopolies and ensure the rights of the common working man.

JASON: Wait…the Panama Canal? Come on. Roosevelt was a great president, and an instrumental figure in creating the National Parks, so I’m a fan…but the man had just died! What about James Madison, or John Adams? Remember when Roosevelt displayed a Borglum statue in the White House? Yeah, Borglum knew Roosevelt personally and worked on his campaign for president. In today’s eyes, through the lens of history, Roosevelt may seem like a decent choice, but at the time, he wasn’t.

ABIGAIL: In 1933, the National Park Service took Mount Rushmore under its wing. A tram was upgraded so it could reach the top for the ease of workers. On July 4, 1934, Washington’s face had been completed and was dedicated. The face of Thomas Jefferson was dedicated two years later attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt [Audio clip?] The face of Abraham Lincoln was dedicated on September 17, 1937. That year, a bill was introduced in Congress to add the head of civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony, but didn’t provide any funding. In 1939, the face of Theodore Roosevelt was dedicated, but the sculpture was far from finished.

Borglum had planned to make a secret room behind the hairline of Abraham Lincoln intended to hold some of America’s most treasured documents, and had began blasting a tunnel 70 feet deep, but when Congress found out about it, they weren’t so crazy about the idea, especially since work was behind schedule. Borglum focused back on the presidents until he died from an embolism in March of 1941. His son Lincoln continued the project for a short time, but insufficient funding and a lack of stable rock forced the carving to end. The entablature would not be created. The secret room would not be finished, and most notably, the busts would not be carved to their waists. Carving ended on October 31, 1941.

In a canyon behind the carved faces sits the secret chamber, cut only 70 feet into the rock. Borglum’s idea of a place to store our most treasured documents was probably never going to happen, but in 1988, president George H.W. Bush dedicated a vault with sixteen porcelain enamel panels – the text of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, biographies of the four presidents and Borglum, and a brief history of the United States.



Doanne Robinson lived to see the completion of Mount Rushmore, having said “South Dakota has already forgotten that I ever had anything to do with the matter.”

There’s a lot of sordid history to Mount Rushmore. And it’s maybe important to note that the second KKK that had only just formed when Gutzon Borglum was involved was a bit different than the KKK we know today, but still a white supremacist organization that would go on to perform terrible acts after Borglum removed himself from it. Borglum would eventually renounce the Klu Klux Klan, saying he never had any part in it, but some historians believe that was for show.

Regardless, Gutzon Borglum believed that massive sculptures like Rushmore were not the work of an artist, and belonged to the people. And Rushmore is there, for goodness sake, it’s not like we can argue about whether it should have been built today. Even knowing the dark history of the sculpture, it can still be a thrilling experience to visit. Especially if you focus on the accomplishments of the 400 men and women who crafted it, and the commonality of the American Experience the memorial intends to reflect.

Nearly 3 Million people a year visit Mount Rushmore – it’s a really popular and often crowded place. There’s plenty of parking, at $10 a car, with no discount for National Park passes. If you’re heading to Rushmore in the busy season, arrive early to avoid the heaviest crowds. I highly recommend you take the Iron Mountain road from Custer State Park, as it impossibly winds through the Black Hills until Mount Rushmore is perfectly framed in one of its tunnels. You can then see the mountain from a high vantage point at an overlook before heading down towards the more touristy grounds of the memorial itself.

When you exit the parking garage, instead of walking down the main walkway with the flags and gift shops and ice cream vendors, take an immediate right turn and head over to the entrance to the nature trail. This very short paved walk will take you to the historic viewpoint, called the Borglum View Terrace, where you can see the sculpture framed in trees with very few distractions. Then follow the path to the left, where it exits near the visitor center. Here you can see the park film and a museum honoring the creation of the memorial.

After the visitors center, take the half-mile Presidential Trail as it gets you to the closest possible views of the sculpture, right at the base of the pile of blasted stone that serves as a pedestal for the presidents. You can then continue around the trail to the Sculptor’s Studio, a preservation of Gutzon Borglum’s workspace, where he re-sculpted the face of the mountain over and over to fit the changing needs of the rock.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


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