Thursday, July 12, 2018

Everything I thought about Mount Rushmore was wrong -- July 12, 2018 column


Like most Americans, I’ve seen Mount Rushmore all my life -- in photos but not in person.

If I had a bucket list, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t have been on it.

I love the noble monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, but 60-foot tall presidential heads on a mountain in South Dakota? Why?      

This month I found out.

“You are going to Mount Rushmore,” friends said, before we left for a fly-drive around the Dakotas.

But passing through Keystone, S.D., closest town to the site, I had doubts. Keystone is a kitschy little tourist trap with Old West-ish décor and entertainment, T-shirts and trinkets.

Would Mount Rushmore National Memorial itself be a crass, commercial disaster?

Would making the trip to the presidents be like fighting crowds at the Louvre to glimpse the Mona Lisa – only to have the unbidden thought: “It’s small”?

President Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in South Dakota, says his dream is to be on Mount Rushmore. Would we see swarms of Trumpians in red MAGA hats, scheming where to add his face? 

No, no and no. Mount Rushmore literally rises above. It did not disappoint.

As often happens when traveling, I learned by going my preconceptions were wrong. And, for the record, there’s no room to add another face.  

The monument is huge, majestic and serene in its stark beauty. It’s not tacky; thank you, National Park Service. Souvenirs are only in the gift shop, and some were actually made in the USA. 

The carved granite faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have noses 20 feet long, eyes 11 feet wide and mouths 18 feet wide.

Mount Rushmore in the Ponderosa pines of the Black Hills is remote. You have to want to go there, and last year about 2.4 million people did. That’s more than twice as many as visit Shenandoah National Park annually.

Like most of America history, though, the Mount Rushmore story is complicated.

Start with the name. Charles Rushmore was a New York City lawyer who came to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims. The story goes that he asked a local guide what the mountain was called and the man replied, “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”

In fact, the Lakota people called the mountain the Six Grandfathers. They still believe the Black Hills sacred and the monument desecration.

South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson had the vision in 1923 of colossal figures carved on peaks. He thought people would drive their new cars to see carvings of heroes of the American West.   

But sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a grander plan. Borglum, son of Mormon Danish immigrants, was talented, flamboyant and temperamental. He had started work on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s dream of honoring Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain, Ga., where he may have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

He fell out with the daughters and quit in a huff, freeing him for the Rushmore project.

Mount Rushmore should honor American heroes, Borglum said, and chose the four presidents.  

Exhibits at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center under the Grand View Terrace explain 90 percent of the carving was done with dynamite, the rest with jackhammer and by hand. From 1927 to 1941, about 400 men worked on the project – and not one died during the construction.

Workers climbed 700 stairs to punch a time clock. They sat in “bosun chairs” dangling by 3/8-inch steel cords hundreds of feet up and chipped away rock to reveal the famous faces. They earned $8 a day.

On a sunny July afternoon, throngs of tourists were respectful and quiet, patriotic and apolitical.

It was refreshing after the toxic atmosphere in the nation’s capital to see people of all ages and races, from all over the country and the world, snapping selfies and admiring the labor of many to honor our democracy’s heroes.

I know now why I wasn’t impressed with Mount Rushmore before. Photos can’t capture its spirit. This memorial you need to experience in person.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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