POTUS #1, #3, #26, & #16: Carved in Stone

Mount Rushmore: Ready for Its Close-up

Final hair and makeup touch-ups before Mount Rushmore’s completion in 1941.

Completed actually is a bit of a stretch. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s original plan called for the figures to be carved head to waist but insufficient funding cut the presidents off at the throat.

Even in truncated form, the project’s price tag approached $1 million, which Austin Powers would appreciate as an enormous sum in an era when trillion wasn’t even a word. South Dakota schoolchildren chipped in $1,700, or the equivalent of  170,000 Lincoln pennies, 34,000 Jefferson nickels or 6,800 Washington quarters. Sucks to be Roosevelt, who not only doesn’t merit a coin but is forced to spend eternity staring at Lincoln’s mole (which measures 16” square, in case you were wondering, and isn’t visible from the main visitor area). Not that Teddy’s complaining. At least he snagged a spot, unlike Susan B. Anthony whose addition was banned by an act of Congress. If the Susan B. Anthony dollar was meant as some sort of belated compensation, it fell woefully short of the mark.

Mount Rushmore: As You’ve Never Seen It

All that debris makes it look like the memorial is constantly shedding boulders, but actually Mount Rushmore’s granite is quite stable, eroding at a rate of 1 inch every 10,000 years. Compare that with Niagara Falls, which loses a foot a year. Every fall, park service employees rappel down the face of the sculpture looking for cracks and fissures, which they caulk with silicone. (The average granite counter top in your kitchen does not require a similar annual sealing, despite what the quartz lobby would have you believe. Just a little inside joke for home remodelers.)

No, what you have at the base of the carving is essentially a giant garbage dump. About 450,000 tons of rock were blasted off the mountain during the 14 years the carvings were under construction. Not surprisingly, this junk pile is cropped out of pretty much every photo the public has ever seen of Mt. Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore: Keep Off!

Gutzon Borglum’s son, who completed the memorial when his father died unexpectedly in 1941, was named Lincoln. Coincidence? Did he have a secretary named Kennedy?

It’s doubtful that either Borglum senior or junior would recognize the “improvements” the park service made to Mt. Rushmore in the 1990s. A walkway positioned at the entrace to the memorial is bordered by pillars displaying flags from all 50 states and U.S. territories, whose sole purpose seems to be to obscure the carvings from view. Perhaps most disappointing for fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: Visitors, and that would have included Cary Grant, aren’t allowed anywhere near the presidents. Access to the top is prohibited, to say nothing of scampering up Washington’s nose (which, at 21 feet, is a foot wider than the others’).

Mount Rushmore: A Sucker Born Every Minute

Mount Rushmore was initially conceived as a tourist trap. State historian Doane Robinson thought people would flock to South Dakota’s Black Hills if the mountains were peppered with images of personalities like Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody. Borglum stepped in with the more dignified notion of carving the presidents. Washington was chosen to represent the birth of our country, Jefferson the expansion, Lincoln the preservation and Roosevelt the development.

It’s all so very high-minded, one might lose sight of the fact that Robinson ultimately had the last laugh. Two million people trek to the memorial annually, in a state with a population of roughly 800,000, to look at a rock. Keep in mind that many of these same folks, particularly those traveling along I-90 from the east, also stop off for a glimpse of the Corn Palace, a building stuccoed in corn.

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  1. Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Week 23 « Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure

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