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Columns Hit the Road

Mount Rushmore is a stunning site

Finally. There they are — George, Thomas, Theodore and Abraham — the four U.S. presidents that sculptor Gutzon Borglum considered worthy of memorializing in the granite of Mount Rushmore. He chose presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln in the 1920s because he believed their administrations represented the most important events in the history of the United States.

Visitors entering the Mount Rushmore National Memorial walk through the Avenue of Flags, where every state is represented. More than 3 million visitors annually come to the memorial from around the world. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Earlier low clouds and rain here in the Black Hills of South Dakota blocked the monument during our two previous attempts to see it, but this third time appears to be a charm. The clouds have lifted and we are treated to the stunning site of the four presidential countenances that Borglum hoped would “show posterity what manner of men they were” and “endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

Seventy-plus years and the faces are still staring into the air above us; likely will for many centuries to come. Unfortunately, granite carvings generally outlast mortals. After working for 14 years on the mountain, Borglum died in March 1941. His son, Lincoln, took over and completed what is now Mount Rushmore National Memorial seven months later.

Now 3 million visitors a year come from all points on the globe to see the enormous, almost unreal visages. Even from the Grand View Terrace we can’t quite be sure that they aren’t a giant backdrop, so we head for the Presidential Trail to get an up-close-and-personal look at the solemn stone faces.

We round a corner and suddenly we are looking right up George Washington’s nose. It is here that we fully appreciate just how large the presidential heads are.  Each is about 60 feet high, and as I examine the corners, crevices and curves, I remember that 90 percent of these faces were sculpted by dynamite.

A 1932 photo shows workers during the construction of the head of George Washington at Mount Rushmore, providing a sense of the memorial’s enormous scale. Courtesy photo

Borglum, also one of several sculptors who carved the Confederate figures on Stone Mountain in Georgia, had perfected the art of placing sticks of dynamite so that each blast created the desired shapes and contours of the heads and shoulders. Typically, workers would labor all morning drilling holes to place the dynamite, then blast during lunchtime. A second round of placement began after lunch, and blasting took place at the end of the day.

Sculptors would then follow with chisels and hammers to create the finer details.

There is always the chance that, when anticipating seeing what is billed as grandiose, it will disappoint. Some films have depicted visits to Mount Rushmore as ho-hum moments, perhaps for comedy’s sake. But take the trail for a closer look at this sculpted wonder and I promise you’ll be impressed.

Also recommended is a stop at the Visitor Center before the grand viewing because you’ll have a greater appreciation for what it took to create the memorial. The story told in an excellent film featuring old photos and newsreels.

Another hint: Go mid-day or late afternoon. The line to get into the memorial in the morning can be miles long, especially in the summer. Going later means you can catch the Evening Lighting Ceremony from the outdoor amphitheater. Unfortunately, we missed that because the clouds descended once more and obliterated the show, but I’m not going to complain. We came, we saw, we were impressed. Visit https://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm. For more photos, visit https://www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash. Have an adventure you want to share? Email eondash@coastnewsgroup.com. 

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