Amazing Faces

I had always wanted to visit South Dakota, and first on my bucket list was Mount Rushmore. I’m not alone. According to the National Park Service, Mount Rushmore National Monument is visited by nearly three million people each year. The faces of the four presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt look down on a well-designed visitors center, with an amphitheater offering movies throughout the day as well as multiple exhibits showing the work which went into carving the faces onto the mountain.

The most iconic view of the presidents’ faces is from the Grand View Terrace which is decorated with flags of each of the 50 states. It’s all quite modern and developed, and the facilities are equipped to handle the crowds of visitors. Nearby is the Presidential Trail – a short walk located just below the sculptures. The path leads to the Sculptor’s Studio and the old Compressor House, which actually powered the lifts and machines during the carving process.

In the 1920s a group of South Dakota elected officials conceived the idea of carving the presidents’ likenesses onto a rocky point in the middle of the Black Hills as a way to promote tourism. After much effort, and a visit to the area by President Calvin Coolidge, they were able to obtain Federal funding for the project. Meanwhile, in Georgia sculptor Gutzon Borglum had been carving likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on Stone Mountain. He was recruited to head up the Mount Rushmore project and began work in 1925.

Image by Sue Bray

Unfortunately, Gutzon Borglum died in 1941 while still working on Mount Rushmore. His son Lincoln Borglum took over and finished the project that same year. Each day more than 400 workers climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain to punch-in on the time clock and begin work. 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500 foot face of the mountain in a "bosun chair".

The work was dangerous. Weather conditions varied from blazing hot to bitter cold and high winds. 90% of the mountain was carved out with dynamite. The workers would cut and set charges of specific sizes remove precise amounts of rock, then would be lifted manually off the mountain. Not one fatality occurred during the fourteen years Mount Rushmore was being carved.

I’d often wondered why these four presidents were chosen to be memorialized at Mount Rushmore. At the Visitors’ Center, I found out. Naturally, George Washington was selected because he was the father of our country and laid the foundation of American democracy and he is the most prominent figure on the mountain. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was the author of the Declaration of Independence and also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt is honored because he provided leadership when America experienced rapid economic and technical growth as it entered the 20th Century. Abraham Lincoln held the nation together preserving the union and abolishing slavery during the Civil War. I can imagine these choices must have been quite controversial back in the 1920s’!

Image by Sue Bray

There is no entrance fee to Mount Rushmore, but they do charge $11 for parking. America the Beautiful passes are not accepted. Pets are not allowed in the visitors’ areas, but there are two designated pet exercise areas near the parking garages. There’s also no smoking allowed at the Memorial. During the summer, the faces are illuminated each evening at dusk.

There’s a huge variety of campgrounds in the area – ranging from primitive camping to luxury RV resorts. Click here for more information. We stayed at Rafter J RV Resort, which offered all the amenities, but also lovely spacious sites giving us the feeling we were camping in a National Park.

Allow a good half day (minimum) for a visit to Mount Rushmore. We left for a visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial and another five days in the Black Hills – more about that later.