In 1924 Gutzon Borglum had just been fired from his position carving Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee statue onto Stone Mountain, Georgia for the Ku Klux Klan.
Doane Robinson, the State Historian for South Dakota, had read about Borglum’s efforts at Stone Mountain. He had been envisioning another colossal project to carve the granite outcroppings of the Black Hills into sculptures, which would transform the tall narrow, granite rock formations known as “the Needles” into memorials of mythic American heroes such as Custer, Lewis and Clark, perhaps the Sioux chief Red Cloud.
Americans were starting to travel by automobile and this would lure tourists away from Yellowstone National Park and into the Black Hills of South Dakota. When he heard that Borglum was in need of a new project, he sent a letter suggesting “opportunities for heroic sculpture of unusual character”.
Borglum telegrammed back “VERY MUCH INTERESTED IN YOUR PROPOSAL, GREAT SCHEME YOU HAVE; HOLD TO IT, THE NORTH WILL WELCOME IT” and in August of 1925 he travelled to South Dakota to meet with Robinson. He rejected Robinson’s initial “Needles” site, but after some exploration, he found Mount Rushmore (which the Sioux called “Six Grandfathers”) and declared the mountain perfect because it received full exposure to daylight and the stone was of the highest quality.
On August 14, Borglum proposed a “Shrine of Democracy” which would commemorate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. All they needed was money.
In the summer of 1927, South Dakota Congressman William Williamson, a champion of the project, convinced President Calvin Coolidge to take a vacation in the Black Hills. President Coolidge was glad to get out of Washington. He arrived in the Black Hills in June and prolonged his three week stay (his hosts kept restocking the trout) into three months. Funding for the project was soon in place.
For the next fourteen years 400 workers carved at Mount Rushmore with dynamite and jackhammers to create “the formal rendering of the philosophy of our government into granite on a mountain peak.” The scale was immense – Washington’s face is 60 feet chin to forehead, his eyes 11 feet wide, his mouth 18 feet wide. The small mole on Lincoln’s face is 16 inches across. Each day the workers climbed to the top of the mountain, then were lowered in “bosun chairs” over the 500 foot face to set off charges and cart away the stone.
It was nerve-wracking and tough and dangerous work, but during the Depression, any job was a good job.