For many people, bucket list destinations are, almost by definition, found in exotic and distant locales. Typically appearing on travellers’ dream itineraries are such splendours as the Taj Mahal; the Egyptian pyramids; the ruins at Machu Picchu; the moai of Easter Island; and the Great Wall of China. However, while many world travellers dream of voyaging to the likes of India or China, comparatively fewer explorers — particularly among those based outside the U.S. — aspire to descend upon the American state of South Dakota. But earlier this month, I visited a genuine wonder that’s located in that great state of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore. My conclusion is that Rushmore merits mention among the most impressive man-made landmarks that the world has to offer.
During the same excursion that brought me to Rushmore, I also swung by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is nearby to Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Although Crazy Horse is still under construction and is quite a long way from completion, it will one day rank alongside Rushmore for majesty and grandeur.
Rushmoring: paying homage to four Presidents on a mountain
From 1927 to 1941, under the supervision of Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the faces of four U.S. Presidents were carved into the sheer granite face of the mountain. But let’s take a step back to reflect upon how the idea for such a stupendous creation arose. The notion of carving replicas of legendary personages in the Black Hills was first conceived of by Jonah Leroy “Doane” Robinson (1856-1946), who served for a time as South Dakota’s state historian, and who sought to create a tourist attraction. As envisioned by Robinson, the folks depicted would have been pioneers and other legendary figures of the Western United States, such as the explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark; showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody; and Native American leader Red Cloud. But when Borglum was commissioned to bring the project to realization, he had a better idea.
Borglum wished to build a monument that was national, and not merely regional, in scope. It was his inspiration to sculpt re-creations of the men whom he deemed the greatest American Presidents up to his time. One additional change that Borglum made to Robinson’s conception was equally consequential: Robinson had intended for the sculptures to appear on a group of granite pillars known collectively as “The Needles.” Borglum, however, identified Mount Rushmore as a superior site for what he had in mind. (Mount Rushmore was named for Charles Rushmore, a New York lawyer who’d made a single trip to South Dakota in 1885 to investigate mining claims. The story goes that Mr. Rushmore looked upon the now-celebrated peak and asked a prospector its name. The prospector supposedly replied that the mountain had been nameless but added, “We’ll call the thing Rushmore.” Several decades later, Charles Rushmore’s name would be memorialized for all time when his namesake peak was chosen as the location for Borglum’s tribute to the Presidents. Charles Rushmore did make a $5,000 donation towards the monument in 1925, which was the largest single monetary contribution by any individual.)
The Presidents that Borglum selected for inclusion on Mount Rushmore appear in the following order from left to right, as viewed by an observer gazing up at the mountain:
• George Washington (1732-1799) — the very first President.
• Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) — the third President.
• Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) — the 26th President.
• Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) — the 16th President.
I won’t even attempt to do justice here to the remarkable biographies and accomplishments of these Presidents who were so instrumental in forming and preserving the United States. However, I’ll address one question that may have occurred to you. Roosevelt, notwithstanding his brilliance and interestingness, and despite his consistently high rankings in polls among historians over time, may not seem to belong at the same rarefied level as his three fellow POTUSes who were chiseled into the mountain. He wasn’t one of the Founding Fathers, nor did he preserve the Union in the face of a bloody insurrection. So why was he chosen? Well, based on my research, Borglum selected Roosevelt for one or both of the following reasons: (1) Roosevelt, often dubbed the “conservation President,” had greatly expanded the system of national parks and monuments in the U.S., laying the groundwork for the establishment of the National Park Service; and (2) Calvin Coolidge, who was President when the Rushmore project was dedicated and later signed a bill to fund it, reportedly insisted on Roosevelt’s inclusion in order to ensure that two members of the Republican party would be represented on the mountain. (Lincoln was the first Republican President. Jefferson belonged to the now long-defunct Democratic-Republican party. Washington had no partisan affiliation.) For what it’s worth, this recent article argues that Roosevelt deserved the immortality in granite that Borglum bestowed on him.
Because it honours four Presidents who loomed so large in the history of the American republic, Mount Rushmore is frequently referred to as the “Shrine of Democracy.”
In March 1941, shortly before the completion of the project; Borglum died; his son Lincoln (named after Gutzon Borglum’s favourite President) guided it through its final months. The project actually ended prematurely. Under Borglum’s original plan, the mountain would have been adorned with not only the heads of the Presidents, but their chests as well. However, in October 1941, with preparations for the U.S.’s entry into World War II well underway, the money from Uncle Sam ran out, and the portions of the Presidents below their heads were never added. Even the heads, to which the monument was fated to be limited, each measure an astonishing 60 feet or so in height.
Prelude to my visit: Rushmore comes to the big city
Before I came to Rushmore, Rushmore came to me. In late June, the monthly meetup hosted by New York City’s chapter of Travel Massive (an organization dedicated to arranging gatherings for like-minded travellers based in various cities) happened to be sponsored by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. This was pure coincidence; I’d planned my July visit to South Dakota many months earlier. Anyway, as a special treat, the sponsors brought Mount Rushmore’s Presidents with them to the shindig in the Big Apple:
And these dead Presidents didn’t just stand there stone-faced; they broke out into dance! Showing the true gentlemen that they were in life, these dudes really knew how to cut a rug! Of course, Washington in particular was renowned for his ballroom dancing skills, although his terpsichorean moves on display in this video are somewhat more prosaic.
After the music died, I began preparing to make my way westward to South Dakota.
Out in South Dakota: Seeing the real thing
I’d decided to make my pilgrimage to Rushmore on America’s 239th birthday: Independence Day, July 4, 2015. That proved an inspired choice. It helped that the weather was highly cooperative; as you’ll see from the photos below, the skies above the area that day were absolutely gorgeous. And it felt fulfilling to walk through such a patriotic venue on the day that honours the founding of my country.
Before arriving at the site, I enjoyed some long-distance views of it along the way. My favourite such vistas came when my tour guide stopped to enable the tour group members to to peer through covered tunnels along the roadway. Those tunnels are specially aligned so that, when you look through one of them, you can see the faces of the four Presidents. Have a look at this example:
Note that, as with most images that I post on this blog, you can view this photo at a larger size by clicking on it (and you can further enlarge it by clicking on it a second time). And here’s the view that I beheld upon emerging from the tunnel:
While the approach to Rushmore was spectacular in its own right, I was excited to reach the hallowed grounds!
As you enter the main facility from the parking lot, you’re greeted by a bust of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. It was crafted by Borglum’s son Lincoln.
Next, you stroll through an avenue along which the flags of all 56 U.S. states and territories (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia; the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; Guam; American Samoa; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the Northern Mariana Islands) are mounted atop granite columns:
Viewing the Presidents
You then reach a scenic overlook called the Grand View Terrace, which delivered the reverence-inducing tableau that I’d traveled over 1,700 miles to gaze upon. (Underneath the terrace is the Lincoln Borglum Museum, which contains various exhibits and artifacts as well as a theater that shows a short film about the history and creation of the monument.) Beholding the quartet of Presidents in person — after seeing so many photographs of them over the years — lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations. It’s really humbling to reflect on the technical achievement that the production of the Mount Rushmore monument entailed. Moreover, from an aesthetic standpoint, Gutzon Borglum’s masterpiece is eye candy that I never got tired of taking in.
Mount Rushmore is an incredibly patriotic place to spend America’s Independence Day!
And as you can see, the Presidential likenesses chiseled into the granite of Mt. Rushmore were virtually indistinguishable from their lookalikes who appeared at the Travel Massive party in New York in late June. 🙂
I’m told that it’s not uncommon to come across live re-enactors of the Rushmorean Presidents strolling the grounds of the park. On the 4th of July, the place was teeming with such re-enactors. Here I thought I was seeing double when I witnessed not one but two Teddy Roosevelts, right next to each other:
I also had the pleasure of sighting none other than Honest Abe, in the flesh!
Inside the sculptor’s studio
During your time at Rushmore, you can visit the sculptor’s studio, which is a short walk from the Grand View Terrace.
Inside the studio stands a model that Borglum erected, which served as a template for the carving of the Presidential visages on the mountainside. The ratio was one inch on this model to one foot for the actual faces. The model illustrates how, as mentioned above, Borglum’s plan was to represent the Presidents down to their waists, rather than only reproducing their heads. If his vision had been fully realized, Mount Rushmore would have a very different look from the one that we’re all accustomed to.
Incidentally, what you see here is actually the last of several successive models that Borglum erected; previous models were dismantled. This final model remains in its original location in the studio, nearly three quarters of a century after the conclusion of the project. Also available for perusal in the studio are some of the original tools employed in the carving.
The studio lies along a winding path called the Presidential Trail. Just off that trail, you’ll find a small cave through which you can gain a unique view of George Washington (and a portion of Abe Lincoln):
Shortly after I passed the cave, the loop of the Presidential Trail brought me back to the Grand View Terrace; thus concluded my tour of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. But one more surprise lay in store for me. From one of the twisty scenic roads outside the park grounds, you can catch a rarely-seen glimpse of George Washington’s head in profile:
Rushmore after dark
My Rushmore experience continued that night. Several hours after my principal exploration of the premises, I returned to the memorial for a daily ceremony during which the Presidential faces are illuminated at dusk. (They remain lit up for about an hour.) That ceremony takes place in an amphitheater below the mountain, every evening from May through September, and it also includes a brief talk by a park ranger; the showing of a short film recounting the history of the monument (although that film was largely duplicative of the one that I’d watched in the Lincoln Borglum theater earlier on the day of my visit); and the calling onto the stage of all veterans of the U.S.’s Armed Forces who are in the audience. Here’s what the Presidents look like when their faces are lit up at night:
It’s traditional on the evening of July 4th for Americans to watch fireworks displays to commemorate their country’s declaration of independence on that date in 1776. No fireworks are launched above Mount Rushmore on July 4th or any other date, although the mountain would surely form a picturesque backdrop for pyrotechnic displays; I’m informed that this is in part due to the risk of brush fires in the area. Although I forewent the opportunity to take in a fireworks show on this Independence Day, I don’t feel that I missed out. Beholding the faces of four Presidents shining forth from the mountain was, for me, a very special way to celebrate America’s birthday. It was the capstone to my best-ever July 4th.
More fun Rushmore facts
Lastly, here are a couple of other facts that I learned while researching this blog post:
• If things had been different, there would have been five faces on the mountain instead of four — and one of those countenances would have belonged to a woman. In 1937, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to add women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony alongside the four Presidents etched into Rushmore. Unfortunately, that same year, a rider to a Congressional appropriations bill mandated that federal monies for Mount Rushmore be allocated only for the four Presidential figures on which production was already underway. That rider was fatal to any expansion of the monument to append Ms. Anthony or any other new honorees.
• The famous scene in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959), in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are chased across the Presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, wasn’t filmed on location. The National Park Service refused to allow it. So the scene was filmed at a soundstage at MGM studios in Los Angeles.
Crazy Horse: a memorial that’s taking crazy long to complete
In 1948, Harry Truman, who had ascended to the U.S. Presidency upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt three years earlier, was re-elected to a full term. Israel gained independence as a sovereign nation. And construction began on the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. Much has occurred in the world in the ensuing 67 years. But Crazy Horse is still under construction. In fact, pretty much the only portion of his statue that has thus far been finished is the head — and even that has not quite assumed final form yet. In its seemingly perpetual state of development, the Crazy Horse Memorial is arguably the Sagrada Familia of the midwestern United States. 🙂
The Crazy Horse Memorial was conceived as sort of a counterpoint to Mount Rushmore, to reflect the idea that Native Americans had their own heroes and it would be appropriate to honour at least one of them with a comparable shrine. Crazy Horse (circa 1840-1877) is best known as the Lakota chief who led a coalition of Native American warriors to victory over the U.S. army at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 — a battle that’s often popularly referred to as “Custer’s last stand,” as U.S. army commander George Custer and all his men were killed in that engagement.
Located approximately 17 miles from Rushmore, the memorial to Crazy Horse was designed by the Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (1909-1982), who’d briefly worked with Borglum on Rushmore in 1939. Ziolkowski was recruited by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder. (Borglum had earlier turned down a request by Henry Standing Bear to carve Crazy Horse’s visage alongside those of the U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore.) The glacial pace of Crazy Horse’s construction may be due, in part, to the fact that whereas Rushmore benefited from the largesse of the U.S. government’s coffers, Crazy Horse has been privately funded. (The construction site is on private land, and as far as I can tell, the mountain that’s being shaped into the monument didn’t have a pre-existing name.) When it’s finally finished, the Crazy Horse Memorial will soar 563 feet into the sky — making it taller than the Washington Monument — and will stretch 641 feet in length.
After the death of Ziolkowski in 1982, construction of this colossus has continued under the guidance of some of his ten children. In their drive to erect the memorial, neither Ziolkowski nor his offspring appear to have been dissuaded by the fact that no one knows what Crazy Horse — the subject of the statue — actually looked like.
Visiting the head
Here’s the current state of Crazy Horse’s memorial, after nearly seven decades of sandblasting and sculpting:
Although the memorial is still very much a work in progress, there’s a large visitor’s centre on the grounds; and eventually the site will also house an educational and cultural centre that will include a satellite campus of the University of South Dakota. Inside the visitor’s centre, numerous Native American artifacts are on display, and you can also watch a short film about the memorial.
Immediately outside the visitor’s centre is a model showing what the Crazy Horse Memorial is ultimately projected to look like. Just a glance at the model, when juxtaposed against what has been achieved so far, illustrates how much remains to be done:
By the way, it’s possible to take a tour that will drive you up the mountain to the level of Crazy Horse’s giant head. I didn’t have an opportunity to make that ascent; but my friends Dave and Deb of the travel blog The Planet D did ascend to head level when they were in South Dakota a couple of weeks prior to my visit. This article on their website contains a photo they took adjacent to the head, several hundred feet above the ground. (Just scroll down a little to the photo entitled “Crazy Horse”; and enjoy their stunning photography while you’re scrolling.)
Crazy Horse after dark
Every evening from Memorial Day through Native Americans’ Day (the second Monday in October), a multimedia laser light show, dubbed “Legends in Light,” is shown on the grounds of the Crazy Horse Memorial; the visuals are projected onto the sheer rock face. According to the memorial’s website, the show “dramatizes the story of the rich heritage, living cultures and contributions by Native Americans to our society.” I didn’t have the chance to attend the laser light show, but it’s something I would like to have done if I’d had more time during my trip to South Dakota.
I don’t have nearly as much to say or show you about the Crazy Horse Memorial as I did about Rushmore; like I said, the site thus far consists of little more than a gargantuan head. But given its proximity to Rushmore, Crazy Horse is a worthwhile addition to your itinerary if you’re already planning to visit Rushmore. Combined, the two sites make for an unforgettable way to spend a day.
But what about karaoke?
Now, you may be wondering whether I performed any karaoke while in South Dakota. I’m pleased to report that the answer is an emphatic “yes”! It happened in Rapid City, the second-largest metropolis in South Dakota (with a population of a whopping 73,000 residents), which happens to be the nearest major town to Mount Rushmore. Rapid City was where I was based during my stay in South Dakota. You can find full coverage of my awesome night of karaoke — including videos — in my next blog post, which discusses my adventures in Rapid City.