On the whole, Mount Rushmore feels like some mix between a roadside tourist attraction and a national monument. Likely that is because it was first envisioned as a roadside tourist attraction and was quickly turned into a national monument. There is no disputing it is impressive, iconic, and significant on the American landscape. Yet for both Trail and myself, there was something amiss about it.
A little history
It was named Mt. Rushmore, long before the carvings, by American explorers and despite already being called Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Indians. The idea for a giant carving started in 1923 with the intent of creating a tourist attraction. Originally it was to be famous figures of the wild west. In 1924 sculptor Gutzon Borglum was brought in to do the work and it was changed to great presidents. Construction ended in 1941 before the full scope of the carving had been completed. Originally the torsos of the presidents were to be carved as well.
The presidents depicted were selected for their contributions to the expansion or preservation of the US. There was also some attempt at party parity with two Republicans, one Democrat to go along with George Washington. This stipulation came from the president at the time Calvin Coolidge. I certainly can’t fault the choices as all four men were significant and impressive in terms of American History. Each was a leader in every sense of the word and all truly dynamic individuals.
What you will find
Arriving at Mt. Rushmore you run through something of a gauntlet of toll booths, parking, and a large pavilion before you get to the monument itself. It’s not something you can easily just spy from the roadside at a distance. Curiously, the only charge to get in is for parking. Normally monuments and parks have a general fee, with parking included in that. Our national parks interagency pass covers those charges. Apparently, it doesn’t cover the parking at Mt. Rushmore as officially there is no fee for the park, only a parking charge which was $11.
The pavilion outside the monument is grand and attractive. A grand columned entry leads you into an area with the usual bookstore, gift shops, concessions and the like. Then you pass through a long courtyard flying the flags of all 50 states as well as our territories. I tried to play ID the flags and did poorly. Beyond that is a large viewing platform followed by a large sunken amphitheater overlooked by the monument itself. The design is excellent and highlights the statue beautifully. The amphitheater would certainly be a fine place for a concert.
From there you can head to the underground museum, or follow an interpretive trail that takes you beneath the monument through the wooded hillside. This trail also leads to the artist’s workshop where work on the statue was overseen. Ideal viewing points for each president are accompanied by information about them. At the workshop, you can listen to ranger lectures and examine the plaster models used to dictate the work on the mountainside. They also have self-guided audio tours as well as plenty of information about how and why the monument was created. Much of this was completed in 1998 so it is fairly modern.
I spend some time reading the bronze plaques created for the monument around the time of its dedication. They emphasize the growth of the nation from its original 13 colonies to its full measure of 50 states. There is a certain sadness knowing that much of that territory was once the home of Native Americans and perhaps appropriately, the site of the monument itself was taken in conquest from the Lakota. America is far from the only country to be built on the foundation of conquest, yet it is very out of keeping with some of our core moral principles as a nation, rooted as it is in self-determination and liberty endowed to all people.
The other thing that feels a little off about Mr. Rushmore is that it has a quality of idolization about it. America’s political core is so rooted in the system of governance, in the idea that government is in service to people, and that we have no kings or monarchs. Making giant images in mountains of our leaders feels a little off, somewhat missing the point of it all. This kind of monument doesn’t make you think of them as giving service to America but the being figures of worship. I don’t think that is at all intentional, but this kind of image harkens to that none the less.
Finally, just the fact it is unfinished bothered me a bit. I’ve got something of a completionist streak in me and it’s obvious looking at it that parts are left undone and incomplete. It’s not small feat creating anything like this and it is a pretty magnificent thing to behold, but it would be all the better was it whole. I’m a little surprised no one has managed to champion the completion of the work. There is probably little incentive aside from artistic desire and at this late stage, many would likely object to changing something so enshrined in the American monument pantheon. Still, I’d have liked to see it as it was originally envisioned. I think it would be an all the more impressive sight from a purely aesthetic perspective.