Tuesday, 12 August 2014

58. Wonder: Mount Rushmore

(For the Mount Rushmore preview, please click here.)

Meet George. He was the first president of the United States of America, who kickstarted the nation in 1776 after a bit of a ruckus with Britain.

And meet Thomas. He was the third president of the United States and also played a big part on getting the country's independence from bad old Britain, and whose shrewd moves by buying French territory from Napoleon later doubled the size of the country.

Next up, meet Theodore. He was the 26th president and ensured the rights of the working man, presiding over a boomtime period of prosperity. He also oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal, an immense project joining the Atlantic to the Pacific and thus the east coast of America to the west coast, although sadly, he's not the man behind the best palindrome of all time: A man, a plan, a canal - Panama! That was someone called Ferdinand de Lesseps. To make up for this, Theodore inspired the Teddy Bear, and therefore your childhood.

And finally, meet Abraham. He was the 16th president of the United States, and did a whole bunch of good work fighting against slavery, and preserving the nation during Civil War. Without him we'd maybe not have a United States, we'd have America and Bmerica - or something like that. For his troubles, the poor guy got shot, which is no way to treat a heroic president, I'm sure you'll agree.

These four men, these four presidents of the United States, make up the all-star team that is... Mount Rushmore.

They've been around since the 1930s, about 80 years or so, but they're going to be around for a lot longer. They're part of the 60-million-year-old-plus Black Hill mountain range, carved from granite that formed around 1.6 billion years ago. That's geology though, and geology always throws numbers at us that we can't really comprehend. Here are some more. This giant mountain sculpture is going to be around, in recognisable form, for anywhere between the next 100,000 and 500,000 years. Let's dwell upon that for a second. The Pyramids are 4500 years old, and everyone thinks they're pretty ancient. The oldest thing on my list, and probably the oldest monument in mankind's history, Gobekli Tepe, is about 12,000 years old. Mount Rushmore will be about for, at least, another 100,000. 100,000 AD, if we don't give time a gritty reboot. What else will be around then? Probably not the pyramids, definitely not anything more delicate or in a less dry climate, which is pretty much everything man has ever built. Mankind itself probably won't be around, or if we still are, civilisation will be more radically different than we can imagine. But yet, somebody or something will be able to stand among the forest and mountains once called the Black Hills in the state once known as South Dakota and look at the faces of four men in the stone. Mount Rushmore may be mankind's most enduring legacy. Not bad for something that was conceived entirely as a tourist attraction.

This is how Mount Rushmore used to look:

And this is how it looks now:

A very different mountain from the one the Lakota Sioux Indian originally called the Six Grandfathers. It's fair to say it's also a very different Black Hills. South Dakota is near pretty much nothing at all, as Danielle and I found out after hours and hours and hours of driving. Too cheap to buy flights from Chicago, and with absolutely no viable public transport available (the Greyhound bus takes 20 hours, with two transfers, no thanks), we opted for hiring a car. And in the 13 hours between Chicago and Mount Rushmore's nearest significant city, Rapid City, I can confirm there is nothing to see at all, nothing except very flat land and very straight roads. Only at the very end of the journey, upon reaching the Black Hills, does the territory change, from utterly mundane to very pretty indeed. It's a long way to come for a mountain, with or without faces.

It would once have been a lot longer. The Black Hills are Native Indian territory, and sacred, and in 1868, the Black Hills were given to them (even though it was theirs anyway) by the American government, forever. Forever lasted eight years. Gold was discovered and although, in fairness, the government tried to stop them, the influx of desperate gold prospectors was too much. People travelled for days or weeks in the hope of fortune. The Black Hills became mining territory. Rapid City was founded. But mining doesn't last forever. And so in a depressed economy in 1923, a man called Doane Robinson, then aged 66, had an idea.

Doane was the state historian for South Dakota and it occured to him, as you do, to carve some people's faces into the mountains. Some American heroes would be nice. It would be a nice little boost to the economy, as tourists might come to see it. Obviously, Doane had no idea how to do such a thing, but the state of Georgia was already in the process of doing something similar, so Doane wrote to the sculptor on that project, a very single-minded but talented man with the outlandish name of John Gutzon de la Motha Borglum.

Born to Danish Mormon immigrants, John Gutzon de la Motha Borglum was known a little more snappily, though still somewhat of a mouthful, as Gutzon Borglum. The "de la Motha" of his name means "the one of courage", deriving from an ancestor said to have saved the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from a wild boar, or perhaps an angry goat (accounts vary), before the ancestor drowned soon after. We can only imagine how this scene panned out, but it meant that centuries later Borglum had a nice little dinner party story to tell. Borglum was a fiery, passionate, and sometimes awkward man, and notoriously difficult to work with. He could be comically short-tempered: he fired his secretary so often during his years at Mount Rushmore that she lost count, but she would always just come back in the next morning as if nothing had happened. One workman boasted being fired and rehired eight times in 14 years. Nonetheless, his reputation as a sculptor was beyond doubt. He visited the Black Hills in 1924 and after a lot of searching he found Mount Rushmore. A giant granite peak, towering over the surrounding peaks, and facing south-east for maximum sunlight, Borglum declared it - with much excitement and waving of hands - perfect. He had already done a runner from his job in Georgia, after much bickering with officials, so snapped up Doane's offer eagerly.

American heroes soon turned into American presidents, and three faces seemed like a good idea. George Washington and Abraham Lincolm were obvious choices, and Thomas Jefferson was a pretty easy third one. But there was space on the mountain still. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge paid an extended visit to the Black Hills. He was charmed by the area, and spent a lot of time trout fishing. This was something he'd never tried before and it turned out he was a natural. Or so he thought. In fact, state park officials had sealed the creek he was fishing in and were sneaking in fat trout every night. His three week visit became three months, and he gave approval for the Mount Rushmore project. He suggested Theodore Roosevelt, who'd died eight years earlier, aged 60, on the basis of him having set up the National Park Service and being the first president to protect the rights of the working man. "Yes!" said Borglum and the South Dakota senator, Peter Norbeck. Both were big fans of Roosevelt and had campaigned for him during his 1912 re-election. It was, nonetheless, a controversial choice - Roosevelt was very recent and untested by history.

All very good then. There was a mountain, there were four presidents, and there was a man ready to sculpt their faces there. There was just the small issue of who was paying for it all.

Visiting Mount Rushmore today, there is no doubt about its draw as a tourist attraction. Doane Robinson was right - it is a major boost. The nearby town of Keystone, once a small mining town, is now a delightfully appalling tourist town, that looks like a cartoon film set of the Wild West. Between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, the roadside is filled with attractions, mainly targetted at children, such as dinosaur museums, life-size mazes, and theme parks. It might be a bit tacky, but it brings in money. All this exists because of Mount Rushmore: the Black Hills area of South Dakota is a tourist resort, because after driving for a day to see some stone faces, you might quite fancy doing something else. But the government in the 1920s weren't so sure about it all. Original estimates - which was pretty much guesswork anyway - were for $400,000 and four years of work. It ended up taking 14 years and $989,992.32. But over half the time, the job was shut down due to lack of funding. After a little work in August 1927, the first real drilling began in October. By December, the money, raised privately, had run out. 1928 saw nothing done at all. Enthusiasm had waned. It was an inauspicious start.

Fortunately, Norbeck, the South Dakota senator, was fully onboard. Without him, Mount Rushmore would likely never have existed. He secured Coolidge's promise of funding, and made Doane Robinson's dream and Borglum's enthusiasm and talent a financial possibility. Federal funding promised to match every private dollar donated, and although the stock market crash of 1929 saw private funding dry up and work proceed only very slowly, in 1934 Norbeck managed to get President Franklin D. Roosevelt (only vaguely related to Theodore - they were fifth cousins) to provide funding direct. Money was no longer an issue: from 1934, only weather stopped work. In all, the government paid $836,000. Not a bad investment when you consider that just the tax on petrol used by motorists visiting Mount Rushmore National Park comes to millions every year. Mine and Danielle's road trip alone probably covers Jefferson's chin.

Despite there being plenty of fairly tacky tourist attractions and billboards between Rapid City and Keystone, Mount Rushmore definitely isn't. It's a class act. Not just the carved faces, but the visitor centre too. It's understated and straightforward, and free of rampant commercialism. This is rather unusual for a world famous tourist attraction, and it's because Mount Rushmore is a National Park and thus protected from rampant tourist tat. There's a large but discreet gift shop, a cafe, and a walkway lined with the state flags, which leads to the main viewpoint.

Below this viewpoint is a small museum, a theatre, and an open-air auditorium.

If you fancy, you can do a short forest walk. We fancied. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it does at least take you to the base of the mountain, for slightly alternative views of the four heads.

You'll notice in some of the above pictures that there is rather a lot of loose rocks between the heads and the base. It's rubble. Clearly, you can't carve a mountain without removing some rock, and rather a lot of rock was removed from Mount Rushmore - something like 500,000 tons. Mount Rushmore was sculpture-by-dynamite: granite is a tough rock and even pneumatic drills struggled to remove much. Borglum and his men found this out soon enough, and became extremely skilled at drilling holes and judging how much dynamite to put in, without damaging other parts of the mountain. It was a difficult and nerve-wracking process, especially starting each face. Blasting away the rock might reveal flaws or fissures in the granite, making further sculpting impossible, and this was what happened to Thomas Jefferson. Originally, Jefferson's head was to be to the left of Washington, but the quality of the rock turned out to be poor, so Borglum ordered the head blown off, and a new Jefferson was squeezed in to the right of Washington instead. It worked out quite well, as it left Washington - the main man of American presidents - more in profile, and more impressive to look at. There's an alternative viewing area a few miles away from the main site that highlights this.

Roosevelt too was a nerve-wracking process  - a lot of stone had to be blasted to find an appropriate surface. There was no guarantee of success, and just 10 metres more and they would have blasted through to the canyon behind - Roosevelt's head is on a thin granite wall. In all, 90% of the rock was removed by dynamite, and left as debris by the base. The final six inches of the rock were removed with pneumatic tools, and even hand tools. Pneumatic "bumpers" gave the four heads their smooth surface.

The forest walk leads onto Borglum's sculptor's studio, where some of his working models can be found. If funding had flowed more readily, and Borglum not died in 1941, aged 73, following complications after surgery, we might have had something closer to this.

It was using models like this that Borglum was able to carve the mountain. Remember, it was hardly him alone doing it, he had a team of up to 70 workers at a time on the project. But they were workers, not sculptors, and so Borglum had to direct them correctly. He devised something call a "pointing machine". Applying wires and a to-scale system onto his working models, the pointing machine could scale up for the mountain. For the workers, it was a sculpt-by-numbers process, and one which worked well. Mount Rushmore's four faces are done to the scale of men 141 metres tall, which (if they were fully formed and could magically step out of the rock) would put them around 40 metres taller than the world's tallest statue, China's Spring Temple Buddha. Washington's face is 18 metres high - compare that with the Statue of Liberty's 2.5 metres. The entire carving is 56 metres across and 49 metres high.

Borglum's son, Lincoln, took over after his death, but with World War 2 interrupting everything, all he did was round things off. Mount Rushmore could be described as an unfinished sculpture. Lincoln was never able to finish his father's intended Hall of Records, a chamber carved into the back of the mountain containing documents that would explain the meaning of the heads to curious visitors from the year 100,000 AD, to avoid any Easter Island-style mystery. However, the chamber was at least started, and in 1998, Borglum's daughter and three other generation of the Borglum family placed some records inside it in a small-scale version of the original plans.

Overall, both Daniele and I found Mount Rushmore an enjoyable visit. Surprisingly so, I think. Tourist attractions can be tacky affairs sometimes. Wonder can be too, to be honest. Visit some sections of the Great Wall of China and find yourself inundated with furious Chinese women trying to sell you fridge magnets or T-shirts or soup or God knows what because I've run away by then. Europe is little better - the entire area around Cordoba's Mezquita is lined with gaudy souvenir shops spilling into the street and gypsy women throwing rosemary at you for a Euro. I could name many, many more such sites in Europe. South America is no better - Cusco is a charming city, but its entire centre is dedicated to tourism. But none of this at Mount Rushmore. Sure, there were a lot of people, but it wasn't congested on either day we visited - a Saturday and Sunday in August. Perhaps the place was big enough to hold everyone, or perhaps there's only a certain amount of time anyone can stand looking at four big faces, therefore people don't hang around too long and instead take the kids to a dinosaur theme park. I regard tat and tack and tourism as pitfalls of my Wonders. A necessary evil often, but still a sad side effect of popularity. Happily, Mount Rushmore sidesteps it, thanks to America's National Park Services. Sure, it may not be the remote wilderness, but neither is it a frustrating fight with tour groups. Indeed, go down to the open air auditorium - often you have the whole thing to yourself, with near-identical views to the official viewpoint.

No doubt, Mount Rushmore is a pretty unmistakable landmark. Four heads carved into a mountaintop, it's not a routine occurrence. It's impressive to see, but in the end what lets it down as a World Wonder are the dimensions. At 56 metres across and 49 metres high, it's simply not massive, not in the context of a mountain. The whole mountain hasn't been carved, the sculpture is just squeezed in at the the top: perhaps if it were the whole mountain, then it might seem different (let's see how the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial pans out in this regard). Because the fame and reputation precedes it, rather like the Statue of Liberty, a lot of people comment that it seems a lot smaller than they'd imagined. Sure, it's hardly small - the star attraction of Chichen Itza, the El Castillo temple is smaller - but its mountain context and its distance from the viewer means that Mount Rushmore doesn't overwhelm. And a Wonder should overwhelm. In the end, Mount Rushmore is what it is, a brilliantly-done, very distinctive sculpture of four heads in a mountain. A great piece of skill and a great piece of art, but not quite to the excesses required to be a World Wonder.

Criteria then.

Size: 56 metres wide, 49 metres high: big, but not gigantic. And it looks smaller when part of a bigger mountain.
Engineering: Granite is a tough rock to sculpt, and carving it, mostly via dynamite, was an impressive effort. And a very precise effort: one mistake could have ruined everything.
Artistry: Borglum's talents as a sculptor shine: Mount Rushmore is an excellently judged piece of monumental art. Tasteful, stately, grand, but not pompous - even if you know nothing of the four men depicted, they seem important.
Age: Around 80 years old, but Mount Rushmore will be around for a lot longer. It will be hard to dispute it as a World Wonder when it's, say, 250,000 years old.
Fame/Iconicity: Clearly, one of America's big icons, and known around the world too. A consequence of the American hype machine and being a genuinely distinctive one-of-a-kind landmark.
Context: Part of a larger mountain range, with its own National Park, unspoiled by tourist crap, and surrounded by the rugged Black Hills. It's a pleasure to visit.
Back Story: Like many of America's big projects of the 1930s, a tale of big egos, money problems, and impressive pioneering feats.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Unmistakeable. There may be other mountain sculptures out there - hell, China did one in the 8th Century - but nobody is going to confuse or forget about Mount Rushmore.
Wow Factor: It's not big enough in the context of the mountain scenery to overwhelm, or make you go "wow". Instead, it's more like appreciating art. It's pleasant simply to sit, gaze up at the mountain and enjoy the view.

Is driving for a whole day just to see Mount Rushmore worth it? Probably not. The top Seven on my list certainly would be. A day of driving for just a couple of hours of viewing of Machu Picchu - no problem. We hiked for four days to see it. The same applies to my Other Wonders too. These are things that take your breath away, and they're worth the effort. To twist it around however, is Mount Rushmore worth effort to visit as part of a larger trip? Certainly. It will always be the highlight of spending time in the Black Hills area, whether hiking or visiting dinosaur theme parks. The same could not be said for the (non) Wonders at the bottom of my list. Mount Rushmore doesn't come close to being truly great, but neither is it at all mediocre. It is a class act. I'd place it just below the Petronas Towers, but above the Golden Temple.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. When I see pictures of Mount Rushmore, there's one thing that I can't get out of my mind - I'm pretty sure the sculptor's intention was that these were to represent each president as an individual, with all of them grouped together as a symbol of four of America's greatest - but I can't help but imagine them coming to life one day out of magic, and saying things like "Who are you?"; "I, Sir, am the president of the United States"; "You must be deluded, for I am the president of the United States"; "Why are we standing so close to together like this? Back of a little bit if you don't mind".


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