The Icon: Mount Rushmore

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A state project that became a masterpiece, Mount Rushmore was conceived in the early 1920s by state historian Doane Robinson to draw tourists to South Dakota.

After hearing about a project to chisel the Confederate leaders on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia, Robinson wrote the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, and invited him to the Black Hills.

It was Borglum who picked the four presidents and the granite expanse, and in 1925, Congress agreed to fund the idea. Borglum and hundreds of workers spent the next 14 years and a million dollars creating the monument.

Today, nearly three million visitors come each year to ogle the massive busts, each as tall as a six-story building.

Here are a few fun facts about the nationalistic landmark:

  • The beginning: Sacred to the Lakota, “Six Grandfathers” mountain got its new name from New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore, who visited the Black Hills in the 1880s.
  • The runners-up:  The original plan was to showcase Lewis and Clark, Chief Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill, but Gutzon Borglum decided the four presidents made more significant subjects.
  • The work: Workers carved 90 percent of the monument with dynamite, and finished with hand tools and air hammers.
  • The understudy: Lincoln Borglum completed his father’s work in 1941 after Gutzon died during surgery.
  • The mistake: Thomas Jefferson’s face began on the right side of George Washington, but Borglum blew that up and carved a new head on the left.
  • The facials: In 2005 the memorial got its first cleaning ever. Workers spent three weeks pressure washing the dirt and lichen.
  • The lady: In 1937, Congress proposed to add suffragette Susan B. Anthony to the memorial, but lack of carvable rock nixed the plan.
  • The pain: Some 400 people carved the memorial. One of the workers, Jack Payne, was fired for yodeling.
  • The rebuttal: Just 15 miles away a stone profile of Crazy Horse is taking shape on a mountainside. When completed it will dwarf the four presidents.
  • The noses: Each presidential schnoz is 20 feet long.
  • The collapse: Infinitesimal. With an erosion rate of one inch every 10,000 years, it will take a long time for Rushmore to fall apart.
  • The tribute: Visits to the memorial spiked 15 percent the year following the September 11 attack.
This piece, written by National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Nelson, appeared in the magazine’s June/July 2013 issue. Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew Nelson.