Monday, 9 September 2013

Preview: Mount Rushmore

In 1885, Charles Rushmore, an attorney from New York, was taking a look round the Black Hills mountain range of South Dakota to handle the acquisition of some tin mining claims. Mining had been big business since the discovery of gold in 1874, displacing the native American population while the rush for gold and all kinds of other metal took place. Remarking on a distinctive-looking mountain, Charles Rushmore asked its name. Perhaps apocryphally, his mining companion replied, “Hell, it never had a name, but from now on we'll call the damn thing Rushmore”.

Naturally, this exchange took place well before the giant heads of four presidents had been carved into the mountain - even erosion at its finest wouldn't manage such convincing pareidolia - and Charles Rushmore had no idea then that his name was to be given to one of the most famous mountains around today. Back then, it was just a craggy peak, 1745 metres high, with the granite rising dramatically from the forest, shaking off the trees to reveal a flattish top flanked by sheer cliff sides. It had been given many informal names before, but Rushmore's name stuck, although it was only formalised in 1930, a few years after the large-scale sculpture had been accounced. He must have been pleased his obscure mountain was to become a giant carving - he donated $5000 to the efforts, the largest contribution from any individual.

As a mountain, Mount Rushmore is pretty old. It's older than the Himalayas or the Alps, at something like 60 million plus years old, or 600,000 centuries if you like. As a monument, it's a little less old, under a single century. Initial work began in 1927 and effectively finished in 1939, although due to the death of the sculptor and the outbreak of the Second World War it was never fully completed. Only in 1991 was it finally dedicated - that is, the formal ceremony to announce its completion - by Presdent George Bush. There's a tricky little pub quiz question for you - which president formally announced the completion of Mount Rushmore? You don't expect it to have been done in the 1990s.

The idea first came about, or was vocalised at least, in 1923, by a man called Doane Robinson. That's not a misspelling of Duane - he was christened Jonah but his sister as a toddler couldn't pronounce that and so called him "Donuh". The emphasis on the second vowel was gradually lost, and the name stuck. A 66-year-old man with a child's nickname, Doane was the state historian of South Dakota, having founded the state historical society in 1901. With the gold mining industry in decline, he reckoned it would be a good idea to carve the images of some American heroes (later changed to American presidents) into the mountains, to bring in tourists and boost the economy. The concept of mountain carving wasn't entirely unprecedented in America - down in Georgia's Stone Mountain, a man with the equally improbable name of Gutzon Borglum was involved with carving a giant monument into the mountainside. So Doane wrote him a letter to see if he was interested in doing one up in his neck of the woods as well. He was.

John Gutzon de la Motha Borglum, it is fair to say, was an erratic character of an artistic temperament. Born in 1867 to Danish Mormon immigrants, his father had been married to two sisters, one of them being Borglum's mother. When he was still an infant, his father decided that polygamy was no longer for him, so abandoned Borglum's mother and moved to Omaha in Nebraska with the other sister, taking Borglum and his eight brothers and sister with him. No word is left on what happened to the poor abandoned sister, for Borglum liked to spin his own version of his early life, one which didn't involve a strange tale of two sisters and an abandoned mother. When he was 22, he found a new mother figure, marrying a 40-year-old woman who acted as his manager and promoter. Their combined talents appear to have complemented each other, for Borglum's career as an artist and then especially as a sculptor took off. Unfortunately, the marriage wasn't as successful, divorcing after 20 years and Borglum immediately remarrying, this time to a woman seven years younger. At least, unlike his father, his two wives were in sequence rather than concurrent.

Manic, uninhibited, reckless and very determined, Borglum was an unashamed self-publicist, forever generating controversy. This wasn't exactly always cheeky fun - he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time of accepting Doane Robinson's Black Hill sculptural commission he was, in some senses, a fugitive from justice. Repeated clashes with the Stone Mountain board had seen him bail on the project, impetuously destroying all his working models as he fled. Obviously, the Stone Mountain people were furious, and for some time tried to scare those of South Dakota with anti-Borglum propaganda, but to little effect. And in fact, years later they even asked him back - his replacement wasn't up to the task, and only Borglum knew how to do it. And this belies the fact that despite sometimes being an unbearable asshole, Borglum was very talented indeed.

Because carving Mount Rushmore wasn't anything like your usual kind of sculpture, one man crafting an image from a stone block. The entire thing is 56 metres across with the faces around 18 metres from top to bottom, and it's carved from granite, an incredibly hard rock. It was hardly as though Borglum was able to swing from a harness and chisel away the details himself. No, this was a major undertaking, fit for the gung-ho can-do era he was in, that also produced the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the space of one decade despite a global recession. It involved making huge plaster models, works of art in themselves with figures carved up till their waist. If the Second World War hadn't broken out and money run dry, Mount Rushmore would have been far more than just heads.

Up to 70 men at a time were involved getting the site ready, from blasting the rock with dynamite to carrying away the tons of rubble that was produced down below. This wasn't just a case of blast-and-hope, Borglum developed an intricate system called a "pointing machine" so that even untrained labourers could do the work of sculptors. A sculpt-by-numbers process, basically. It used wires and a 1:12 scale system for determining key points of the giant emerging faces according to the small scale models. Accordingly, the rock mass could be removed by dynamite - 90% of the stone, or 500,000 tons was removed this way - prior to more precise sculpture. "Precision" in this case meant going at it with pneumatic jackhammer-like "bumpers", which smoothed the rock and formed the details of the faces. As the sculptures were almost 150 metres above the ground, scaffolding was clearly out of the question. The workers all dangled in harness, darting out of the way of explosions and getting thoroughly shaken by the jackhammers, in both scorching and freezing conditions.

In the end, it took 14 years to finish, although funding delays meant half of this time work was at a standstill. Nonetheless, one by one, the faces of the four presidents emerged: first George Washington, then Thomas Jefferson, then Abraham Lincoln, and finally Theodore Roosevelt, who was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of South Dakotan statehood on July 2nd 1939. The final dedication ceremony was due in 1941, but because of Borglum's death just a few months earlier, and because of the escalating World War, things kind of took a backseat.

Due to the hard granite, geologists estimate Mount Rushmore lasting anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 years. When asked once if he'd got his faces right, Borglum replied that he felt the nose of Washington was perhaps an inch too long, but it would erode enough “to make it exactly right in 10,000 years”. This means that long after human civilisation has gone or changed beyond all recognition, these four faces will still be staring on from the top of a mountain. Probably all the other man-made things you can see around you, or have ever seen, will be gone, but Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt will still be there in granite. I think that's pretty incredible. I can imagine our post-apocalyptic evolutionary spin-off descendents being pretty baffled.

As a Wonder, Mount Rushmore is a curiosity that I expect to be a little underwhelming - sure the faces are big, but they're not that big, and they can only really be viewed from a distance. But they are definitely interesting, unique, very American and very iconic. Mount Rushmore is sculpture taken to its ultimate bombastic conclusion - an entire mountain turned into faces. And that's got to be something worth seeing.

I'll be visiting Mount Rushmore probably late next year, or at some more distant point in the future, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

"Mount Rushmore: The Story behind the Scenery" Lincoln Borglum, Mary L Van Camp
“Mount Rushmore (Cornerstones of Freedom)” Andrew Santella
“The Story of Mount Rushmore” Marilyn Prolman
“The Carving of Mount Rushmore” Rex Alan Smith

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