Widely regarded as one of the man-made wonders of the world, Mount Rushmore is as much a work of art as it is an engineering marvel. Its creator, sculptor Gutzon Borglum, wanted to symbolize in stone the very spirit of a nation and, through four of its most revered leaders -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt -- the country's birth, growth, preservation, and development. A half-century after its completion, Mount Rushmore remains one of America's most enduring icons.
In 1924, Borglum visited the Black Hills, looking for a place to carve a lasting legacy for himself and the nation. He hoped to locate a mountain with a suitable mass of stone, as well as a southeasterly exposure that would take advantage of the sun's rays for the greatest portion of the day. He decided on a rock outcropping named Mount Rushmore.
Inclement weather and lack of funds often stalled progress on the memorial. All told, the monument was completed at a cost of about $1 million during 6 1/2 years of work over a 14-year period.
Having studied under the master sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris, Borglum understood art. When he arrived at Rushmore in 1925, Borglum was 58 years old and had already created a full roster of memorials to famous Americans, including Gen. Philip Sheridan, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and President Abraham Lincoln. Relying on his independent study of the four presidents, as well as life masks, paintings, photographs, and descriptions, Borglum created plaster sketches of the men. These sketches became the models for the memorial, and copies of each president's likeness were always on display on the mountain as a guide for the workmen.
Using a method of measurement called "pointing," Borglum taught his crews to measure the models, multiply by 12, and transfer the calibrations to the mountain carving. Using a simple ratio of 1:12, 1 inch on the model would equal 1 foot on the mountain.
Borglum and his crew used dynamite to carve more than 90% of the memorial. Powdermen became so skilled in the use of dynamite that they could grade the contours of the cheeks, chin, nose, and eyebrows to within inches of the finished surface. Skilled drillers used bumper bits and pneumatic drills to complete each portrait, leaving the surfaces of the presidents' faces as smooth as a concrete sidewalk. Up close, the pupils of each of the presidents' eyes are shallow recessions with projecting shafts of granite. From a distance, this shape makes the eyes sparkle. Several men were injured working on Mount Rushmore, but no one was killed during its construction.
As work neared completion in March 1941, Borglum died in a Chicago hospital at age 74. His son, Lincoln, carried on the work for another 6 months, but that work was interrupted by World War II. On October 31, as war clouds rumbled over Europe, the younger Borglum and his crew turned off the drills for good and removed the last scaffolding from the sculpture, returning the mountain to the eternal silence from which it had been awakened in 1927.
The efforts of the Borglums and their cadre of influential supporters resulted in a work of art for the ages. George Washington, the most prominent figure in the group, symbolizes the birth of a republic founded on the principle of individual liberty; Thomas Jefferson, who managed to fund the Louisiana Purchase and balance the federal budget, signifies the growth of the United States; Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, imparts the strength of character responsible for preserving the union during the Civil War; and Theodore Roosevelt, the "Trust Buster" and friend of the common man, embodies the American spirit of independence, strength, and love of the wilderness.
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