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This Day in History: Mount Rushmore

On this day in 1941, Mount Rushmore is declared complete.

Did you know that the famous presidential monument was partly inspired by a similar stone carving of Confederate leaders? And did you know that a competing monument is currently being constructed about 15 miles from Mount Rushmore?

Gutzon Borglum inspects the nose of George Washington on Mount Rushmore.

The so-called Father of Mount Rushmore was Doane Robinson, a South Dakota state historian. He hoped to inspire interest in South Dakota! When he learned of a carving project in Georgia, led by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, he decided to seek something similar for his state.

Why not create a carving atop Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Robinson contacted Borglum, who (as it turns out) was about to get fired from Georgia’s Stone Mountain project anyway.

The two men had completely different visions. Robinson wanted to carve Western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, or Buffalo Bill. Borglum thought national leaders were better. These national leaders would create a “monument so inspiring that people from all over America will be drawn to come and look and go home better citizens.”

Obviously, Borglum’s idea won.

Borglum had another change in mind, too. He didn’t want to use the spindly spires on Harney Peak; he wanted to use the broader canvas and the soft granite of Mount Rushmore instead.

When it came to location, Borglum won again.

The process of carving began on October 4, 1927, and it continued for 14 years. The memorial was largely created by using dynamite sticks, detonated with great precision. Technical difficulties arose. Did you know that Jefferson was supposed to be on Washington’s left? Or did you know that the Presidents were supposed to be shown from the waist up? Borglum also wanted a “Hall of Records” and an entablature with a brief history of America carved into it, but these ideas were abandoned due to time or monetary considerations.

Funding ideas changed as well. A project that started with a combination of private, state, and federal efforts ended with the federal government paying for most of it, partly through New Deal programs.

The monument has not been without controversy, partly because the Lakota Indians claim a portion of the land. The Lakotas have begun work on another monument, the Crazy Horse Monument, about 15 miles from Mount Rushmore. Interestingly, that monument is being created without any federal funds.

In the end, Borglum’s son had to finish the job that he’d begun. The monument was declared complete on October 31, 1941, roughly eight months after Borglum passed away.

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