The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore
by Matthew Shear/Smithsonianmag.com October 2016
Each year, two million visitors walk or roll from the entrance of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in South Dakota, to the Avenue of Flags, to peer up at the 60-foot visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Dedicated 75 years ago this month, Mount Rushmore was intended by its creator, Gutzon Borglum, to be a celebration of not only these four presidents but also the nation’s unprecedented greatness. “This colossus is our mark,” he wrote with typical bombast. Yet Borglum’s own sordid story shows that this beloved site is also a testament to the ego and ugly ambition that undergird even our best-known triumphs.
In 1914, Borglum was a sculptor in Connecticut of modest acclaim when he received an inquiry from the elderly president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, C. Helen Plane, about building a “shrine to the South” near Atlanta. When he first glimpsed “the virgin stone” of his canvas, a quartz hump called Stone Mountain, Borglum later recalled, “I saw the thing I had been dreaming of all my life.” He sketched out a vast sculpture of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and was hired.