In 1923, looking to attract tourists and stimulate the economy of his state, South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson proposed creating a massive monument in the Black Hills.
The proposal was granted federal funding, and Robinson selected architect and sculptor Gutzon Borglum to design and carve the monument. Borglum convinced Robinson that sculptures of presidents would attract more national interest, and selected the stable granite cliffs of Mount Rushmore as the ideal location.
As the project moved forward, it was decided that the sculpture would include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt for their contributions to the founding, growth and preservation of the nation.
On October 4, 1927, the carving began.
Crews of sculptors and miners closely supervised by Borglum rappelled down the precipitous cliffs and blasted away the granite, first with dynamite, then with jackhammers and chisels.
Washington, being the first president, was carved first. His likeness was unveiled from behind a massive American flag in a ceremony on Independence Day 1930.
Jefferson came next. Workers began carving next to Washington’s right shoulder, but eventually found that the granite was insufficiently stable. Borglum ordered the partially formed face to be blasted off the mountain, and they started over on the opposite side of Washington.
As progress continued, plans had to be adjusted and abandoned according to the suitability of the rock. Lincoln’s head was moved from its original planned position and placed where Borglum had intended to carve a massive inscription.
Jefferson’s sculpture was dedicated in 1936, with President Franklin Roosevelt in attendance.
Roosevelt’s head was dedicated in July 1939, but work continued. The plan called for the presidents to be depicted all the way down to their waists. Borglum also began excavating a deep vault in the mountain for an envisioned “Hall of Records” to explain the monument to future archaeologists.
Mount Rushmore is actually unfinished, in that each president was meant to also have a carved body. Borglum died in March 1941, before the project was completed, and his son Lincoln took over the project. Though the original vision for the sculpture was never fully implemented, in October 1941 it was declared complete and funding was cut off, so only the head of each president was carved
Over the course of 14 years, more than 400 workers had carved away 450,000 tons of rock without a single fatality.