An historian for the State of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, first conceived the idea of what is now Mount Rushmore, though his original vision was considerably different than what was eventually achieved. For one thing, he didn’t consider Mount Rushmore as the site for the monument, instead envisioning the Needles – granite columns in Custer State Park – as suitable for sculpting. He also didn’t consider Presidents as the subject of the monument, instead he wanted sculptures of western explorers and heroes including Merriweather Lewis, William Clark, William Cody, and possibly Native American leaders. After Gutzon Borglum became involved he changed both the subjects and the site.
Borglum found the rock composition of the Needles to be inadequate for sculpting, and in his opinion the subjects of the monument should be more nationally oriented. Funding for the project was pursued by South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck, who gained the support of President Coolidge to help push bills through Congress. Later Norbeck successfully gained the support of FDR to ensure the project was completed despite the Great Depression. Mount Rushmore was created over a period of 14 years during which there were no fatalities among the workers on the project, a remarkable safety record for its day.
Originally Borglum intended to present the four Presidents to the waist, with Lincoln’s arm and hand carved in the rock as if he was stroking his beard. Financial considerations altered that approach. The four Presidents were selected by Borglum. He also intended to have the Jefferson image behind and to the right of Washington, but examination of the rock on that portion of the mountain proved the idea to be unworkable. The carvings as they exist are roughly 60 feet high, and required the use of dynamite to remove over 450,000 tons of rock from the face of the mountain, followed by boring and removal of lesser amounts to finalize the shape of the figures. Skree from the blasting still lies on the mountain beneath the monument.
Carving the mountain began in October 1927. More than 400 workers were employed on the project. In 1933 the project came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, though Borglum remained in charge of the day to day operations. On July 4, 1934 the head of George Washington was declared complete and dedicated. Jefferson followed in 1936, and Lincoln the following year. An attempt was made in Congress that year to include the likeness of Susan B. Anthony but it was defeated, and the appropriations bill contained a rider which allowed for only the work which had already been started to be completed through the use of federal money. Theodore Roosevelt was completed in 1939.
There remains sufficient rock alongside and beneath the existing monument for additional sculptures, and Borglum had several plans for which he had created models for further carvings, but he died in 1941 and none of them have ever been seriously considered. Additional structures and chambers within the mountain have been added for support of tourists and maintenance but other than the sealing of cracks and occasional cleanings, no further work has been done on the monument itself. Mount Rushmore was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.