Mount Rushmore National Memorial
One of the most impressive landmarks of the American West is the famed
sculpture of the presidents at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black
Hills of western South Dakota. Since its completion in 1941, the sculpture
has become an inspiring symbol of American democracy, visited
by millions of people every year.
The sculpture depicts the visages of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln,
and Theodore Roosevelt, and at the time was intended to represent the first
150 years of American history. The granite faces are sixty feet tall, and together
are one of the largest statues in the world.
Mount Rushmore was conceived and sculpted by artist Gutzon Borglum. His story is almost
as dramatic as the monument itself. Borglum and his supporters fought for years on behalf
of the project against local and national opposition and skepticism. Always short
on financial support, and facing tremendous technical challenges, he started work
in 1927 and persisted through the miserable years of the Great Depression before
completing the faces in 1941.
Borglum had originally intended to complete the sculpture down to the
presidents' waists but he died, and no further work was done. The faces themselves
were and are considered a fantasic accomplishment. However Borglum's original models,
scaled on a 1 to 12 ratio, can be seen at his Sculptor's Studio, a historic 1939
on-site building which now serves as a museum. (Note that Borglum did not actually
carve the stone himself, but supervised teams of drillers, laborers, and other craftsmen.)
During the 1990's, the memorial was redeveloped and received an enormous facility
upgrade. This included a major concession building for dining, snacks, and gifts;
a new museum building with two theaters; a major new viewing area, Grand View Terrace;
and the Avenue of the Flags (shown right), which features the flag of each state.
The Presidential Trail was also constructed. This trail allows visitors to access
the foot of the mountain for the first time and get great closeup views of the sculpture.
This, of course, has upgraded Mount Rushmore to a very major and busy tourist attraction.
During my last visit in 1974, the memorial was more of a backwater and not at all
hectic as it is now. At that time, quiet contemplation was the order of the day.
The story of Borglum and Mount Rushmore is not entirely without controversy.
It is said that Borglum was a strong advocate of "manifest destiny", in the sense
of desiring the complete elimination of Indian sovereignty. The locale in the Black Hills,
an area which was harshly wrested from the Lakotan Sioux, may have been a pointed
message to these Native Americans. The Crazy Horse Memorial (below) was most likely an
explicit response to Mount Rushmore. Our featured book (right column, top) covers
this and other interesting topics.
Crazy Horse Memorial
A short distance from Mount Rushmore, the collossal statue of the famed Sioux
warrior, Crazy Horse, has been under construction since 1948. When
completed, the statue will depict Crazy Horse on his mount, arm pointed
forward, and will be by far the largest statue in the world, 641 feet long
and 563 feet high. The face, completed in 1998, stands 90 feet tall.
Several Lakotan chiefs approached sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, regarding
the project as early as 1939. They wished, of course, to commemorate a great
Native American hero on a grand scale. Crazy Horse, along with Chief Sitting Bull,
had led the Sioux warriors against Custer at the Little Big Horn.
Ziolkowski had worked for a time at Mount Rushmore, assisting Gutzon Borglum.
He commenced the Crazy Horse project in 1948, and worked
on it until his death in 1982, enduring much physical hardship along the way.
Since that time his wife, Ruth, and family have continued his work.
The completion date of the statue is unknown. Construction could go on for
generations, given the vaguaries of fund-raising and the harshness of the
weather on the northern plains. Since the beginning, the project has refused
to accept any government funding and is entirely dependent on private donations.
Over the years the facility at Crazy Horse Memorial has grown into a major
Native American cultural and educational center. More information may be found at:
Norbeck Scenic Highway
Access to Mount Rushmore from the south, over Iron Mountain, is provided
by the famed Norbeck Scenic Highway. The route is considered one of America's
finest scenic drives. It combines beautiful scenery, sometimes grand vistas and
sometimes lovely forests and glades, with extremely unusual road engineering.
There are numerous scenic one lane tunnels as well as several unique "pig-tail"
bridges (left and right, below). These bridges reduce elevation without the need
for a switchback. The road simply comes off the bridge, curves in a complete circle,
and proceeds forward below the bridge.
One spectacular shot which we missed due to traffic was a view of Mount Rushmore framed perfectly by one of the tunnels. Maybe next time...
The Black Hills region around Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park is
exceptionally rich in wildlife. At left, one of several pronghorns grazes
alongside the road. These animals are often called antelope but that is
The most exciting observation was a small group of mountain goats next to
the road about five minutes from the Mount Rushmore entrance station. It was impossible to stop
for a photo due to the heavy traffic in the area.
Get the Best of the West for your Vacation!
Make the most of your valuable time! Purchase the American West Travel Itinerary - Trip Planner by the American West Travelogue Editor, based on over 30 years of first-hand experiences. Customized and prepackaged plans available.