The Hidden Room Behind Mount Rushmore
By Jake Rossen
In the 14 years he spent planning, sculpting, and overseeing the completion of the Mount Rushmore monument, artist Gutzon Borglum harbored a deep concern. He worried that his creation—one that used a 400-foot-long by 500-foot-wide rock canvas to depict the faces of four influential U.S. presidents—would one day be shrouded in mystery.
After all, Borglum reasoned, what did we really know about Stonehenge? Or Egyptian pyramids? Civilizations could rise and fall while Rushmore stood, its origins getting more clouded with time.
To make sure people in the future knew the history of his project and the meaning behind it, Borglum announced an ambitious addition: a massive room situated just behind Abraham Lincoln’s hairline that would contain all the information anyone would ever need about the mountain. It would even house major historical artifacts like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Borglum called it the Hall of Records. In 1938, he had workers begin blasting away with dynamite, carving what he wanted to be the most elaborate artist’s signature ever conceived.
The loud, brazen Borglum was born in 1867—at least, that’s the best information we’ve got. He enjoyed obfuscating his history, mixing and matching facts for his own amusement. A talented artist, Borglum thought he’d have a career in painting. When he saw his brother, Solon, making a reputation as a sculptor, sibling rivalry kicked in, and Borglum found he had even more to offer while working in clay.
After a modestly sized bust of Lincoln garnered Borglum national attention, he was invited to carve the faces of Confederate soldiers into Stone Mountain in Georgia. That work—which was never completed due to disagreements with local government—attracted the attention of Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s official state historian. Robinson told Borglum that a monument in the Black Hills of the state could be an excellent canvas for a work on a grand scale; in return, the state’s tourism statistics might flourish.
Borglum was intrigued. After scouting three mountains, he began to dwell on the possibilities present at Mount Rushmore. To draw national attention, he would focus on four presidents who had a tremendous impact on the country: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt. Each man would be depicted down to his waist. Alongside Washington would be a massive inscription detailing major events in U.S. history.
The actual carving began in 1927, with 30 men working at a time to blast rock with dynamite. The U.S. government subsidized most of the cost of labor, which would eventually amount to nearly $1 million.
As they doled out money, South Dakota and the federal backers were most concerned with Borglum etching the six-story tall faces into the east side of the mountain. But Borglum’s attention was diverted: as ambitious as the project was, he imagined something even greater. He wanted a room accessible to visitors that would have tablets explaining the work done, as well as busts of famous Americans and key documents like the Declaration of Independence. Those looking for admittance would climb an 800-foot-long staircase made from the blasted rock, then pass under a gold-plated eagle with a 38-foot wingspan.
The room began to take shape in 1938, when Borglum finally started blasting out an opening. A doorway 18 feet tall led to a room 75 feet long and 35 feet tall; red paint on the walls told workers where and how to extract the rock. Holes that housed the sticks of dynamite created a honeycomb effect.
Borglum’s ambition wasn’t shared by the government, which had a limited amount of funds to allocate and considered the room frivolous. South Dakota state senator Peter Norbeck wanted to help, and offered relief workers to assist in constructing the staircase. That way, federal funds wouldn’t have to be tapped.
Borglum, however, didn’t warm to the idea. He got a percentage of those federal funds, and using relief labor wouldn’t put any money in his pocket. He pushed the senator away in the belief he could grease the necessary wheels.
Borglum’s self-confidence may have been his downfall. Governor William Bulow told him that finishing the faces was of the utmost priority, and that any ancillary work could be ignored until later. Any miner could blast a hole in the mountain—it took an artist to conceive of the actual sculpture.
Despite Borglum’s insistence he was in perfect health, Bulow’s urgency turned out to have merit. Borglum died in March 1941, leaving the Hall of Records unfinished.
With money and time at a premium, the government declared the monument more or less complete on Halloween 1941. Borglum’s ambition for a signature room would be costly, and no more work was done. It remains inaccessible to tourists.
His family wouldn’t drop the matter so easily. For decades, Borglum’s descendants petitioned the government to complete the room in honor of his work. Finally, in 1998, family members were able to assemble in the room and oversee a deposit of several porcelain tablets that explained the work done to the mountain. Lowered into a hole in the floor of the room, it was topped with a 1200 pound capstone. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society paid for the ceremony, which represented Borglum's posthumous completion of his landmark piece of art.
One of the tablets contains Borglum’s intention for both the mountain and the room inside of it:
"I want, somewhere in America, on or near the Rockies, the backbone of the Continent, so far removed from succeeding, selfish, coveting civilizations, a few feet of stone that bears witness, carries the likeness, the dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a Nation, placed so high it won't pay to pull them down for lesser purposes. Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away."
All images courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.