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Is there anything more purely American than Mount Rushmore? It’s a testament to the country’s unbeatable spirit. The story of Mount Rushmore, much like the story of America, wasn’t always smooth sailing. The tales behind how both came to exist involve compromise, creativity, and a ton of hard work from average citizens. It’s fitting that Rushmore stands watching over South Dakota at the edge of the West; many credit the exploring and settling of the frontier as an important part of what made America the country it is today. And, just like America, there are tons of fascinating hidden secrets in Mount Rushmore!
Mount Rushmore: The Original Vision
The idea for Mount Rushmore came from South Dakota historian Doane Robinson. He originally wanted to carve figures into rocks to promote tourism in the state. His first thought, though, was to carve these into the Needles near present-day Custer State Park. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum rejected the Needles in favor of Mount Rushmore, since it had better quality stone and wouldn’t interfere as much with Native American beliefs. Plus, the southeastern direction meant maximum sun exposure, something Borglum took very seriously.
The faces weren’t originally going to be presidents, either. Robinson’s initial vision was of carved statues of Western heroes like Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody, but Borglum thought the four presidents had wider appeal. Things even changed after the carving started. Borglum was supposed to carve the presidents from waist to head. Ultimately, he only carved the heads, because funding was low. Borglum rearranged things because the rock was unsuitable; Thomas Jefferson was originally going to be on Washington’s right.
Few people know that there was almost a woman on Mount Rushmore. In 1937, right after Lincoln’s head was dedicated (but before Roosevelt’s was dedicated), a bill was introduced to Congress proposing that Susan B. Anthony’s head be added. Sadly, someone stuck a rider onto another bill stating that federal funds could only be used for the four originally-approved carvings.
Borglum had also planned a massive panel in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase that would commemorate the nine most important events in US history between 1776 and 1906. These included the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and territorial acquisitions from Alaska to Texas and beyond. Borglum couldn’t find a place that had good rock to carve it, though. Plus, it was not possible to make words readable at a distance, even in 8-foot-tall gilded letters. So Borglum scrapped the plan. Which leads us to the best of the hidden secrets of Mount Rushmore…
The Secret Room
Instead of the Louisiana Purchase panel, Borglum planned to add a room behind the carvings to hold these important documents. He wanted the so-called Hall of Records to be 80 by 100 feet, carved into the canyon behind the faces. Borglum wanted an 800-foot granite stairway leading into the Hall. The plan was for the Hall to house bronze and glass cabinets containing copies of important documents; items highlighting advances in the arts, industry, and science; and busts of famous figures. There was to be a massive bronze eagle over the entrance.
Work crews had only blasted a 70-foot tunnel when money ran short in 1939, however, and Borglum died shortly after in 1941. The government declared Mount Rushmore complete on Halloween of that year. But… the idea of a Hall of Records never fully died out. On August 9, 1998, the National Park Service installed one of the greatest hidden secrets of Mount Rushmore. Yep, National Treasure: Book of Secrets was right!
Rangers placed a repository of records into the floor of the tunnel. A granite capstone covers a titanium box containing a smaller teakwood box. Sixteen porcelain enamel panels that outline the story of Mount Rushmore and Borglum; the reason why each of the four presidents was selected and their biographies; and a brief history of the US are inside. Technically, the Hall of Records is not open to visitors, but millions of years from now… who knows?
Making a Monument, and Mount Rushmore Today
Dynamite carved off a whopping 90% of the mountain. Despite this, no one died during the process. Workers then “honeycombed” the rock; they drilled hundreds of holes into it to make the granite easier to remove and carve. Clever workers would charge visiting tourists up to $6 (a lot during the Depression) for chunks of honeycombed granite as souvenirs.
Mount Rushmore is also home to the Avenue of Flags, which has flags from each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 1941—the first year records were kept—the monument saw 393,000 visitors. In 2016, Mount Rushmore welcomed over 2.4 million visitors. It’s safe to say that Robinson’s plan to increase tourism to South Dakota worked! Whether you visit because it’s so iconic, or because you want to explore the hidden secrets of Mount Rushmore, it’s a must for any American.