Around the time a colossal Olmec head was found at La Venta, an American historian was envisioning a different type of giant head to be carved in a mountain. Doane Robinson believed such a work would attract visitors to South Dakota. Peter Norbeck, the state’s senior senator, agreed.
To move his idea forward, Robinson sent a letter to Gutzon Borglum, a respected American sculptor. It was the summer of 1924, and the artist was looking for a challenging project.
Borglum wasn’t interested in local heroes or mundane topics. Were he to carve a South Dakota mountain, his subjects would have to be presidents who had championed individual liberty.
Although Congress passed legislation to allow the venture, most folks weren’t interested in contributing funds. Why would anyone want to carve the side of a mountain? Years passed, and the money did not come in. Not, that is, until the President came to town.
Calvin Coolidge, and his wife Grace, decided to vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the summer of 1927. Captivated by the scenery and restful atmosphere, they converted their three-week visit into a three-month sojourn. That was enough time to convince the President to back the Mount-Rushmore project.
By this time, Borglum was sixty years old. His artist tools would include dynamite to blast the mountain and workers to carry out his vision. Among his crew were out-of-work miners who had the needed skills. Among his detractors were Native Americans - especially the Sioux - from whom their sacred lands (including Mount Rushmore) had been forcibly taken. (Don’t miss this power-point animation from the U.S. Military Academy.)
Borglum decided on four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and the artist’s friend, Theodore Roosevelt. It wasn’t just the faces of presidents he decided to create, however. His plan included a giant vault which he would carve into the canyon wall behind the mountain. Into the vault would go national treasures such as the documents which guarantee freedom and individual liberty to all Americans.
Age (and a post-surgery embolism) caught up with Borglum before he finalized his vision, so his son (Lincoln) wrapped up the project with a few finishing touches - except for the hall of records. More than fifty years later, in 1998, the National Park Service carried-out Borglum’s plan when it completed a scaled-down version of the great hall.
Last time anyone checked, however, that Rushmore vault contained neither golden treasures from the lost city of Cibola nor tablets filled with Olmec glyphs!