10 Things You Didn't Know About Mount Rushmore

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The Fourth Face

Mount Rushmore under construction

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Sculptor Gutzon Borglum wanted Mount Rushmore to become a "Shrine of Democracy," as he called it, and he wanted to carve four faces on the mountain. Three U.S. presidents seemed obvious choices - George Washington for being the first president, Thomas Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence and for making the Louisiana Purchase, and Abraham Lincoln for holding the country together during the Civil War.

However, there was much debate as to who the fourth face should honor. Borglum wanted Teddy Roosevelt for his conservation efforts and for building the Panama Canal, while others wanted Woodrow Wilson for leading the U.S. during World War I.

Ultimately, Borglum chose Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1937, a grassroots campaign emerged wanting to add another face to Mount Rushmore—women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony. A bill requesting Anthony was even sent to Congress. However, with money scarce during the Great Depression and WWII looming, Congress decided that only the four heads already in progress would continue.

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Who Is Mount Rushmore Named After?

Mount Rushmore with carving just beginning.
Construction begins on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, circa 1929.

FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What many people don't know is that Mount Rushmore was named that even before the four, large faces were sculpted upon it.

As it turns out, Mount Rushmore was named after New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore, who had visited the area in 1885.

As the story goes, Rushmore was visiting South Dakota for business when he spied the large, impressive, granite peak. When he asked his guide the name of the peak, Rushmore was told, "Hell, it never had a name, but from now on we'll call the damn thing Rushmore."

Charles E. Rushmore later donated $5,000 to help get the Mount Rushmore project started, becoming one of the first to donate private money to the project.

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90% of Carving Done by Dynamite

The 'powder monkey' of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial

 Archive Photos/Getty Images

The carving of four presidential faces (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt) onto Mount Rushmore was a monumental project. With 450,000 tons of granite to be removed, chisels were definitely not going to be enough.

When carving first started at Mount Rushmore on October 4, 1927, sculptor Gutzon Borglum had his workers try jackhammers. Like chisels, jackhammers were too slow.

After three weeks of painstaking work and too little progress, Borglum decided to try dynamite on October 25, 1927. With practice and precision, workers learned how to blast away the granite, getting within inches of what would be the sculptures' "skin."

To prep for each blast, drillers would bore deep holes into the granite. Then a "powder monkey," a worker trained in explosives, would place sticks of dynamite and sand into each of the holes, working from the bottom to the top.

During the lunch break and in the evening -- when all the workers were safely off the mountain—the charges would be detonated.

Ultimately, 90% of the granite removed from Mount Rushmore was by dynamite.

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Mount Rushmore under construction.

Photo by MPI/Getty Images

The sculptor Gutzon Borglum had originally planned to carve more than just presidential figures into Mount Rushmore—he was going to include words as well. The words were to be a very short history of the United States, carved into the rock face in what Borglum called the Entablature.

The Entablature was to contain nine historical events that occurred between 1776 and 1906, be limited to no more than 500 words, and be carved into a giant, 80 by 120 foot image of the Louisiana Purchase.

Borglum asked President Calvin Coolidge to write the words and Coolidge accepted. However, when Coolidge submitted his first entry, Borglum disliked it so much that he completely changed the wording before sending it to the newspapers. Rightfully, Coolidge was very upset and refused to write any more.

The location for the proposed Entablature changed a number of times, but the idea was that it would appear somewhere next to the carved images. Ultimately, the Entablature was discarded for the inability to see the words from a distance and lack of funds.

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No One Died

Work on Lincoln's head at Mt Rushmore


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Off-and-on for 14 years, men dangled precariously off the top of Mount Rushmore, seated in a bosun's chair and tethered only by a 3/8-inch steel wire to the top of the mountain. Most of these men carried heavy drills or jackhammers—some even carried dynamite. 

It seemed like a perfect setting for an accident. However, despite the seemingly dangerous working conditions, not a single worker died while carving Mount Rushmore.

Unfortunately, however, many of the workers inhaled silica dust while working on Mount Rushmore, which led them to later die from the lung disease silicosis.​

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The Secret Room

The entrance to the Hall of Records at Mount Rushmore.
The entrance to the Hall of Records at Mount Rushmore.

Photo courtesy the NPS

When Sculptor Gutzon Borglum had to scrap his plans for an Entablature, he created a new plan for a Hall of Records. The Hall of Records was to be a large room (80 by 100 feet) carved into Mount Rushmore that would be a repository for American history.

For visitors to reach the Hall of Records, Borglum planned to carve an 800-foot-high, granite, grand stairway from his studio near the base of the mountain all the way up to the entrance, located in a small canyon behind Lincoln's head.

Inside was to be elaborately decorated with mosaic walls and contain busts of famous Americans. Aluminum scrolls detailing important events in American history would be proudly displayed and important documents would be housed in bronze and glass cabinets.

Starting in July 1938, workers blasted away granite to make the Hall of Records. To Borglum's great dismay, work had to be halted in July 1939 when funding became so tight that Congress, worried that Mount Rushmore would never be finished, mandated that all work had to be focused on only the four faces.

What remains is a roughly hewn, 68-foot-long tunnel, that is 12-feet wide and 20-feet high. No stairs were carved, so the Hall of Records remains unattainable to visitors.

For nearly 60 years, the Hall of Records remained empty. On August 9, 1998, a small repository was placed inside the Hall of Records. Housed in a teak box, which in turn sits in a titanium vault covered by a granite capstone, the repository consists of 16 porcelain enamel panels that share the story of the carving of Mount Rushmore, about sculptor Borglum, and an answer as to why the four men were chosen to be carved upon the mountain. 

The repository is for men and women of the far future, who may wonder about this wondrous carving on Mount Rushmore.

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More Than Just Heads

Mount Rushmore scale model

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As most sculptors do, Gutzon Borglum made a plaster model of what the sculptures would look like before starting any carving on Mount Rushmore. Over the course of carving Mount Rushmore, Borglum had to change his model nine times. However, what is interesting to note is that Borglum fully intended on carving more than just heads.

As shown in the model above, Borglum intended the sculptures of the four presidents to be from the waist up. It was Congress that ultimately decided, based on lack of funding, that the carving on Mount Rushmore would end once the four faces were complete. 

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An Extra-Long Nose

Washington's face under construction at Mt. Rushmore


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Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was not just creating his massive "Shrine of Democracy" on Mount Rushmore for the people of the present or tomorrow, he was thinking of people thousands of years in the future

By determining that the granite on Mount Rushmore would erode at the rate of one inch per every 10,000 years, Borglum created a monument of democracy that should continue to be awe-inspiring far into the future.

But, just to be extra sure that Mount Rushmore would endure, Borglum added an extra foot onto George Washington's nose.  As Borglum stated, "What is twelve inches on a nose to a face that is sixty feet in height?"*

* Gutzon Borglum as quoted in Judith Janda Presnall, Mount Rushmore (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000) 60.

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Sculptor Died Just Months Before Mount Rushmore Finished

A painting of sculptor Gutzon Borglum

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Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was an interesting character. In 1925, on his previous project at Stone Mountain in Georgia, disagreements about who exactly was in charge of the project (Borglum or the head of the association) ended with Borglum being run out of the state by the sheriff and a posse. 

Two years later, after President Calvin Coolidge agreed to participate in the dedication ceremony for Mount Rushmore, Borglum had a stunt pilot fly him over the Game Lodge where Coolidge and his wife, Grace, were staying so that Borglum could throw a wreath down to her on the morning of the ceremony.

However, while Borglum was able to woo Coolidge, he irritated Coolige's successor, Herbert Hoover, slowing progress on funding.

On the worksite, Borglum, often called "the Old Man" by workers, was a difficult man to work for since he was extremely temperamental. He would frequently fire and then rehire workmen based on his mood. Borglum's secretary lost track, but believes she was fired and rehired around 17 times.*

Despite Borglum's personality occasionally causing problems, it was also a big reason for the success of Mount Rushmore. Without Borglum's enthusiasm and perseverance, the Mount Rushmore project likely would never have begun.

After 16 years of working on Mount Rushmore, 73-year-old Borglum went in for prostate surgery in February 1941. Just three weeks later, Borglum died from a blood clot in Chicago on March 6, 1941.

Borglum died just seven months before Mount Rushmore was finished. His son, Lincoln Borglum, finished the project for his father.

* Judith Janda Presnall, Mount Rushmore (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000) 69.

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Jefferson Moved

Gutzon Borglum Overseeing Mount Rushmore Construction

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The original plan was for Thomas Jefferson's head to be carved to the left of George Washington (as a visitor would be looking at the monument). Carving for the face of Jefferson began in July 1931, but it was soon discovered that the area of granite at that location was full of quartz. 

For 18 months, the crew continued to blast away the quartz-riddled granite only to find more quartz. In 1934, Borglum made the difficult decision to move Jefferson's face. The workmen blasted what work had been done to the left of Washington and then started to work on Jefferson's new face to the right of Washington.