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Following the Steps of Miners Who Carved Rushmore

July 2, 2008

By Malecia El-Amin, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 2–MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. — Looking up at the faces carved into the rock of Mount Rushmore, you probably feel respect for these giants of American history. But follow the steep and dangerous trail to the top, and that respect likely extends to the hardy men who carved the monument.

Nearly 3 million people visit this shrine on the side of a mountain each year, none of them allowed to make the climb I was about to begin. I would follow in the steps of the miners who shaped Rushmore, hiking not far from proposed trails that could take the public closer than ever to the monument.

The path my small, ranger-led group took would lead to the capstone laid near the summit in 1998. Our way is clearer than the challenges faced by Gutzon Borglum and his crews that worked sporadically (when funding allowed) between 1927 and 1941, the year the sculptor died and his son Lincoln Borglum ended the project, unfinished.

I learned quickly why the trail is closed to the public. At some points I had to clamber on my knees, unable to stretch my leg up to the next large rock.

But once we started on the path, led by National Park Service rangers Amy Bracewell and Ed Menard, there was no turning back. (Actually, there would have been, had we visitors ignored cautions against photographing security cameras, booths or stairs en route.)

Much of the hike was uphill, and I spent most of it watching my feet, stopping occasionally to decide where to put them next: This steep rock? That tight spot? Will my foot get stuck here?

It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, only you had to be sure you were making the right choice, or you risked a twisted ankle or strained muscle. I learned the treachery of fallen ponderosa pine needles. One wrong step meant slipping.

My group fared better than the men who scaled the mountain for their pay. None of them died during the work, but they had their share of accidents and injuries, historian and author Tom Griffith had told us on the bus ride from Rapid City to Rushmore.

In one incident, dynamite used to carve the granite was detonated accidentally, blowing a man off the mountain and slamming workers to the rocks, he said.

“They just had scrapes and bruises but were able to return to work in short order,” Mr. Griffith says.

The work crews “might have been slow going up the mountain, but they weren’t slow about coming down because there was plenty of beer down here every day in Keystone,” Mr. Griffith said as we passed through the town of 311 people.

Rushmore’s design was not etched in stone, so to speak. Historian Doan Robinson’s idea was to depict explorers Lewis and Clark, Sioux chief Red Cloud and possibly other Western figures in the Black Hills’ Needles. Borglum, invited to do the work, instead chose the Rushmore site and national figures. He and Robinson ultimately agreed on who those figures would be: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

But that isn’t the order they were in at first.

“They actually changed the composition of the memorial nine times to account for fissures and bad rocks,” Mr. Griffith told us. Jefferson’s lip had to be patched to fill a fissure, he said. And Jefferson is above the others because cracks in his face forced carvers to move him higher.

On our climb, we spot a mountain goat that appears to be under Lincoln’s nose. The animal is a testament to the wilderness around the memorial area’s 1,278 acres.

We climb farther and reach steep metal stairs. I welcome them after all those rocks. We’re escorted in small groups through a fence toward them. Beyond are more stairs.

We pause at the capstone that acknowledges Borglum’s plan to have a Hall of Records near the mountain’s summit. The vault underneath it contains panels explaining Rushmore’s carving, and panels with the words of historic documents.

These days, fireworks are stored in the cavern that was to be the hall’s entrance. Those fireworks are used for the memorial’s Independence Day show, always on July 3.

Some in our group navigate the last, shorter set of stairs and steep rock to the tops of Washington’s and Jefferson’s heads.

I put down my backpack, zip my camera into its protective case and slide on my stomach to get to the summit, never looking down.

The surrounding wilderness seems endless. Only one winding road is visible, beyond the back of Washington’s head. We aren’t allowed to stand close to the edge — visitors below might spot us — so all I can see of the carvings is Jefferson’s nose.

I imagine making that climb nearly every day for years without the benefit of stairs. The miners who worked here did that to help create Borglum’s monument to U.S. history.

Then I imagine the descent. The dangers of the pine needles are magnified on the way down.

When we reach the bottom of Rushmore, we proceed to the Sculptor’s Studio, which displays Borglum’s scale model of the completed sculpture. The studio is angled so that you can see the actual Rushmore through a large window and compare the two works.

Not far away is an amphitheater. A University of South Dakota nursing school graduation had been in progress earlier.

At the amphitheater, visitors can watch a 22-minute film narrated by actor Avery Brooks that tells the monument’s history.

Original footage shows Borglum and his crew at work. The film also touches on the negative effects that westward expansion had on American Indians. It segues between the lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

At the observation area toward the front entrance to the memorial, visitors pose for pictures with the sculptures as a backdrop.

About 30 people are gathered in the quiet, sharing a moment with the monument, the men it captures and the men who carved them in stone.

WHEN YOU GO

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The monument is about 20 miles from Rapid City, in southwest South Dakota. Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (summer), 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (winter). Self-guided audio tour available. An ice cream shop and restaurant are on the premises.

Contact: 605-574-2523; www.nps.gov/moru

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