Did you know that in the first stages of dreaming of a mammoth rock monument in South Dakota, thoughts were of carving such western notables as Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and various legendary Sioux warriors? Such was the dream of Doane Robinson in the early 1920’s when he conceived the idea of a carving so big it would put South Dakota on the map.
Encouraged by the popular senator from the area, Peter Norbeck, Robinson wrote to one of American’s most prolific artists, Gutzon Borglum. Borglum came to discuss the plan, but surprised Robinson and Norbeck by stating that the biggest work of his life would not be dedicated to local heros; no, it had to be of national subjects who had contributed much to American history.
Four great presidential personages were chosen to represent “an eternal reminder of the birth, growth, preservation and development of a nation dedicated to democracy and the pursuit of individual liberty”.
On August 13, 1925, Borglum finally found the perfect spot for his work atop Harney Peak at 7,242 feet, the highest point between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. “Here is the place” he proclaimed. “American history shall march along that skyline.”
Borglum was 60 years old in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the site, referring to it as a “national shrine”. Borglum climbed to the summit and symbolically drilled 6 holes into the rock face, beginning a work that would consume the 14 remaining years of his life.
As you gaze upon the giant heads, you can’t help but be amazed at the skill and labor involved in such a task. Carving such remarkable likenesses on such a scale at such a height boggles the imagination.
Each head averages 60 feet tall.
Washington’s nose is 21 feet high.
Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson’s eyes are about 11 feet wide and his mouth is about 18 feed wide. He gazes slightly into the heavens, symbolizing his reputation as a visionary and philosopher.
Theodore Roosevelt, creator of many of our National Parks.
The detail on Roosevelt’s rimless glasses is just enough to convey a hint of them. Roosevelt had only been dead 8 years. Borglum designed his head from memory, having been good friends and confidants with him.
Even the glint in Lincoln’s eyes have not been forgotten.
Several scenic drives surround the location. We stayed in a campground at nearby Hermosa, south of Rapid City. We approached the monument along the Iron Mountain Road with views through the tunnels of Mount Rushmore. The memorial contains a large visitor center with displays and films. The Avenue of the Flags contains four-sided columns, a state with its date of admission to the Union engraved on each side, and its flag flying atop. At the end is a large viewing terrace. We continued our day in the park by having lunch in nearby Hill City, and returning via the winding Needles Highway with its fantastic views and rock formations.