I scratched an item off my bucket list last week. I visited George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where they'd been awaiting my arrival since 1941.
The Mount Rushmore National Monument is one of those things you marvel at as a school kid, promise to visit as an adult and postpone seeing because South Dakota is never on the way to where you're going. The 3 million visitors it drew last year didn't stumble on it by accident.
That it's claimed such a place in American culture, despite its remote location, is one reason that visitors hang on each word during park rangers' presentations.
Ranger Ed Menard, 11 years at the site, caught several of us by surprise when he explained that Doane Robinson, an otherwise obscure state historian, was the long-ago catalyst behind the project. His idea to attract tourists was for a sculptor to carve images of western figures such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Red Cloud atop the stone spires known as "needles" that dot the Black Hills.
That led him to artist Gutzon Borglum, who liked the idea but said Robinson was thinking too small. Forget cowboys and American Indians. And leave those impressive stone spires untouched. This project merits national figures on a mountaintop.
"Lighting is important to artists," Menard said. "Borglum said the most important thing is that the mountain must face southeast. The sun will be on it first thing in the morning and most of the day. The second thing is it has to be big, because a lot of the rock will be weathered and cracked and have to be blasted away."
Numbers hardly tell the story, but they hint at the scope of the work. About a half-million tons of granite were removed -- about 90 percent of it with dynamite -- and nearly 400 laborers participated in an undertaking that took 14 years. The cost ($1 million) would equate to about $16 million today.
There were drillers, powder men, carvers, winchmen, tool men, truck drivers and blacksmiths, all working in the 1930s for wages ranging from 55 cents to $1.50 per hour. Many of them made the daily climb of 500 feet to the top just to be lowered over the side in sling seats and harnesses while wielding 40-pound jackhammers.
Among the highlights of the Mount Rushmore exhibit hall are interviews with workers who recalled their trepidation at hanging from 3/8-inch steel cables and the haze of granite dust that stung their eyes and burned their lungs.
As fascinating as the mechanics of Borglum's masterpiece -- he created and measured scale models before replicating those proportions on the real thing -- was his choice of presidents and the message he felt they conveyed: freedom fighter Washington; Declaration of Independence author Jefferson; emancipator Lincoln; and trust buster Roosevelt. Borglum famously summed up their effects in 11 words: "Man has a right to be free and to be happy."
The iconic project was met with derision early on, from naturalists, Native Americans, politicians and others. Menard said a New England newspaperman, who was familiar with Borglum's carvings on Stone Mountain near Atlanta, wrote: "He's going to ruin another mountain, but thank God it's in South Dakota where no one is ever going to see it."
Those journalists can really stick their foot in it, can't they?
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com