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Explore the Hidden History of Mount Rushmore

Explore the Hidden History of Mount Rushmore

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Getaway Staff

Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic monuments in America, a veritable piece of history and culture carved into stone. Nestled into the Black Hills of South Dakota, sculptor Gutzon Borglum's creation has its own story, and there's more to this must-see attraction than meets the eye. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln are all there, but there's more too. From the early stages of construction to conflicts along the way, a fascinating tale emerges that visitors might not be aware of.

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01Meet the players

Gutzon Borglum is the renowned sculptor behind Mount Rushmore's construction, but the idea belongs to South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, who's known as "The Father of Mount Rushmore." Why? Tourism, of course. Robinson wanted to attract tourists from across the country — and the globe — to his state, so he established the idea of a monument in the Black Hills, reaching out to Borglum to bring his vision to life. At the time, Borglum was well recognized for carving Stone Mountain in Georgia as a memorial to the Confederate Army, and Robinson believed he was the man for the job.

02Presidents weren't the original plan

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission was authorized on March 3, 1925, but the first round of sculpting didn't begin until over two years later: on October 4, 1927. Originally, that iconic image of the four presidents wasn't in the plan. In hopes of attracting an international crowd, the massive sculpture was supposed to include world-famous figures. When that didn't go through, America's most historic events was up next. Eventually, however, the commission settled on sculpting the presidents as its final game plan.

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03Why those four faces?

Mount Rushmore JamesBrey / Getty Images

Although 29 presidents took office before Doane Robinson even dreamed up his idea, the final four were chosen for specific reasons. Each face carved into the mountain represents a vital part of US history, and Gutzon Borglum didn't take his selection lightly. George Washington represents the birth of the nation, so he was the first proposed face. Next came Jefferson, who represented the young country's growth. Roosevelt stood for development and Lincoln for preservation. Borglum wanted the American essence embodied in stone, and he chose these presidents to do precisely that.

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04Location controversy

SIOUX INDIAN IN THE BLACK HILLS MOUNT RUSHMORE IN BACKGROUND D. Corson/ClassicStock / Getty Images

The biggest roadblock to Mount Rushmore becoming a reality arose before construction even began. Since the monument would permanently transform the surrounding Black Hills landscape, the U.S. government claimed the area as a National Park. This land has been utilized as a sacred space for centuries by several Native American tribes, so compensation is still being discussed to this day. Once the location dispute was settled, construction began in October 1927, with 400 workers getting to work on Borglum's masterpiece.

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05Funding restrictions take hold

Originally, Borglum wanted to extend the monument beyond those signature four faces. He was thinking big, with plans for a map of the entire Louisiana Purchase. Inside, carvings would highlight America's most significant accomplishments through time, from the Revolutionary War to the present day. Of course, those carvings required extra cash, and it brought the monument into risky territory on the financial front. The high cost raised major concerns, and the commission was denied in its entirety. Larger portraits of the presidents were also proposed before reaching the final agreement we see carved in stone today.

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06Carving complications

While every carver had a vital role in Mount Rushmore's construction, Luigi Del Blanco was designated Chief Carver for his ability to bring the presidents' personalities to life. The process was tedious, with the team removing some smaller pieces by hand — 450,000 tons were removed by the time of completion. Issues sprang up along the way, however, setting the carvers back. Jefferson was supposed to be on Washington's right, but the granite mountain made it difficult, and while the team had already started this particular face, they had to blast away that first attempt and re-do it on the left. The new Jefferson was squished into the rock, with many workers afraid he wouldn't even fit!

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07The National Parks Service comes to the rescue

With both funding and structural issues springing up over the course of construction, the National Parks Service took over in 1933. This rescue move made an impact, improving both infrastructure and funding. In order, each president was completed and dedicated one by one. Washington came first in 1934, followed by Jefferson in 1936, Lincoln in 1937, and Roosevelt in 1939.

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08Mount Rushmore's hidden chamber

There's more to this monument than meets the eye, including a 70-foot tunnel behind Abraham Lincoln's head. It was designed by Borglum himself to be the hidden entrance to the Hall of Records. So, what was the plan for this top-secret space? It was supposed to house America's most vital documents, including the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, within luxurious bronze and glass cabinets. The entire chamber was to measure 80-by-100 feet and be filled to the brim with U.S. history, making it a time capsule into the nation's past. Unfortunately, Borglum died in 1941, and that, combined with WWII, put a halt to the plan before it could come to fruition.

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09The hidden chamber today

The dream didn't die there, however. After Borglum's death, plans for the Hall of Records continued. The hidden tunnel was made into a smaller, less extravagant version of itself, with a repository of records placed inside a titanium vault. Inside are sixteen porcelain panels describing Mount Rushmore's history, along with that of its presidents and the U.S. itself, and engravings of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. A 1,200 granite slab leaves this entrance hidden from prying eyes.

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10All about the main monument

Mount Rushmore finally reached completion on October 31, 1941, with a final cost of $989,992.32 — quite a steal by today's standards. Despite all the difficulties, not a single death occurred during its construction, and it reached the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Today, a lot of maintenance goes into keeping Mount Rushmore structurally sound. Since granite is susceptible to cracking, finding the weak points and keeping them sturdy is a must. The Mount Rushmore Society uses modern silicone sealant and an electric monitoring system to keep the monument intact. This sealant can withstand a wide range of weather extremes, temperatures, and conditions, and it's dusted with granite power to remain hidden from tourists' curious eyes.

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