Nine Secrets of Mount Rushmore

Hidden chambers, optical illusions, and even a little-known secret concerning the King of Rock and Roll.

Secrets of Mount Rushmore
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South Dakota's Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic symbols of the United States, on par with the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty.

First proposed by South Dakota State Historian Doane Robinson in 1923, Mount Rushmore didn’t reach its final form until 1941 — prematurely halted by the death of the monument’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. Carving began in 1927 and nearly 400 men and women worked on the project which involved climbing 700 stairs every day and using dynamite to blast through rock, though the construction saw zero fatalities. The featured four presidents were chosen by Borglum because he thought they “represented the most important events in the history of the United States.”

The colossal, 60-foot profiles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are so instantly recognizable, they've been spoofed in commercials, used as film backdrops (including Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"), and reproduced in all sizes and forms, including a giant construction at Legoland.

But for all of Mount Rushmore's widespread fame (and over 2 million annual visitors), it's also a place with a deep history and a long list of little-known facts that may surprise even the most well-read history buff.

Illustration of Mount Rushmore with bulleted list of facts as stated in the article text

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The original plan featured a different set of figures

It's hard to imagine Mount Rushmore without the commanding presence of these particular presidents. But believe it or not, Plan A was to spotlight rugged regional heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the Oglala Lakota leader, Red Cloud. The figures would be carved into the granite pillars known as The Needles. This, essentially, would have made the work similar to a set of totem poles.

Calvin Coolidge was courted for federal funds

When Mount Rushmore was conceived in the late 1920s and the project was in need of funding, President Calvin Coolidge had an auspicious summer vacation in the Black Hills. His trip coincided with a planned formal dedication ceremony of the mountain by Borglum. Locals came up with wildly creative ways to endear themselves to the president, including gifts like a 10-gallon hat. Once, a plane air-dropped a wreath of flowers at his lodge, and even a creek was stocked with fattened trout from a hatchery so the president could have an easy time fishing. President Coolidge ultimately attended the dedication ceremony where he promised federal funding for the project.

Theodore Roosevelt isn’t wearing glasses

Only the pince-nez (and neither the lenses nor the ear pieces) was carved onto President Roosevelt's face along with ridges on the upper cheeks. From far away, the commander-in-chief looks as if he's donning a pair of spectacles. It's an impressive optical illusion and sculptural stunt.

Secrets of Mount Rushmore
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There’s a hidden chamber behind Lincoln’s head

To accompany the faces, Borglum had ambitious visions of a repository with an entrance crowned by a bronze eagle, accessible by a grand staircase. Interiors were to be adorned with friezes, vaulted ceilings, busts, and bronze-and-glass cabinets that housed artifacts central to American democracy. The construction only got so far — a tunnel was blasted into the canyon — before it was abandoned. Though the unfinished Hall of Records, cut into the rock behind President Lincoln’s head, remains off-limits to visitors, it's the bearer of a titanium vault with porcelain panels outlining milestones in U.S. history.

Attempts have been made to add a fifth face

Women's rights activist Rose Arnold Powell led an indefatigable crusade to get Susan B. Anthony's visage on the mountain. Meanwhile, conservatives spearheaded the "Reagan on Rushmore" or "Ron on the Rocks" movement to memorialize the 40th president's legacy. There have even been efforts to add Elvis Presley's slicked-back likeness to the Black Hills.

The best views are from the President’s Trail

Follow the crowds, and you'll end up at the Grand View Terrace, just beyond the Avenue of the Flags. True, the head-on views are spectacular and unobstructed. But you can do better. Walk the often-bypassed loop around the base of the mountain. Climbing up the steps through ponderosa pines, you can get a closer view of the faces at various twists and turns (and maybe catch a glimpse of a Rocky Mountain goat or a mule deer, too).

It’s been the site of protests

Mount Rushmore has also been a site of continued controversy since its conception. The area was named Sioux territory by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the Black Hills have historical, spiritual, and cultural significance to the area's tribal nations. For Native American protesters — particularly active in the 1970s — Mount Rushmore is a painful reminder of broken treaties and a history of mistreatment. This sentiment is only worsened by the men represented on the monument.

Secrets of Mount Rushmore
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The monument isn't finished

If there's something raw and rugged about Mount Rushmore, it's because it's far from a finished masterpiece. Save for a final brush-up by Borglum's son, Lincoln, construction halted after the original sculptor's death. The model was meant to depict the heads-of-state down to the waist, but today you can barely make out Washington's coat collar, and Lincoln's ear, shoulder, and a fourth knuckle were never chiseled to completion.

Google Maps sometimes gets the address wrong

If you're using Google Maps to locate this national landmark, be very, very specific. Apparently, general searches for Mount Rushmore often send travelers astray. If you find yourself at a Methodist campground called Storm Mountain Center, you're about 12 miles away from the memorial.

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