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Facing a Monumental Challenge : Devoted Park Staff Protects Memorial on Mt. Rushmore

Charles Hillinger's America

February 23, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MOUNT RUSHMORE, S.D. — We are not creating a monument to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln or Roosevelt, but to the meaning of these 11 words-- MAN HAS A RIGHT TO BE FREE AND TO BE HAPPY --as developed into and maintained in a national government by these four great national leaders.

--Gutzon Borglum,

June 18, 1931.

Icicles hang from the end of George Washington's 20-foot-long nose. Glistening snow crowns the 60-foot-high heads of Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt atop Mount Rushmore.

And, on the slopes of this 6,000-foot-high National Memorial, ranger Steve Kveene, 35, trudges through foot-deep snow on patrol, following a pair of boot prints up the east face of the mountain 300 feet below the carved granite heads.

All who work here--the rangers, maintenance and other National Park Service staff, those at the gift shop and restaurant--are extremely protective of the revered memorial. Rangers are immediately summoned if anyone is spotted climbing the mountain toward the faces of the four Presidents carved in bold relief.

No one is permitted to climb Mount Rushmore. Signs beyond the viewing terrace warn: "Climbing Mount Rushmore prohibited. Violators subject to fine of $500--six months in jail."

Better Photo Angle

"Oh, now and then someone will hike part way up the huge pile of rock tailings beneath the faces to try to get a better photo angle. We spot them and ask them to leave," said Kveene, a ranger in the park for 12 years.

Trespassers climbing the mountain are arrested and fined from time to time.

"It isn't safe to be up there," Kveene added. "Climbing the tailing rocks easily triggers slides. And, we're always concerned about possible vandalism."

The boot prints Kveene followed abruptly reversed direction and returned to the parking lot by a different route. The trespasser had not ventured far up the mountain.

Three years ago a 30-year-old man climbed Mount Rushmore and committed suicide by leaping from one of the granite faces.

On June 27, 1975, the day after two FBI agents were killed at Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation 50 miles southeast of here, a bomb blew out huge viewing windows at the Mount Rushmore Visitor's Center. No one was injured and the perpetrators were never caught.

There are some indications that the two incidents were related but the connection has never been proved.

It was South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson who conceived the idea in 1923 of carving huge heads of Sioux Indian Chief Red Cloud and legendary scouts Jim Bridger and Kit Carson on a mountain in the Black Hills.

Famed Danish-American sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was invited to South Dakota by Robinson to discuss the proposal.

Borglum, who was born in St. Charles, Ida., selected Mount Rushmore for the colossal carvings. But, instead of the Indian chief, Bridger and Carson, it was decided to carve the heads of the four Presidents who epitomized the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the Republic.

Mount Rushmore, named after New York attorney Charles Rushmore who visited the Black Hills in 1885 to investigate mining claims, was selected because of the smooth-grained granite near its summit and because it stood apart from other mountains, dominating the surrounding terrain.

Work started Aug. 10, 1927. Washington's head was dedicated July 4, 1930; Jefferson's Aug. 30, 1936; Lincoln's Sept. 17, 1937 and Teddy Roosevelt's--complete with mustache and spectacle rims--July 2, 1939.

Roosevelt Comment

"We can meditate and wonder what our descendants will think about us 10,000 years from now when they see this mountain," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he presided at the dedication of the Jefferson face.

Borglum died of a heart attack when he was 70 on March 6, 1941. His son Lincoln continued the project until Oct. 31 that year when the final drilling occurred. Suspended in slings, 36 drillers labored on the gigantic work of art.

Of the $990,000 it cost to create Mount Rushmore Memorial, $836,000 came from federal funds. A large portion of the rest came from schoolchildren who donated pennies, nickels and dimes.

Borglum received $170,000 for the 14 years he spent on the project, a little more than $12,000 a year.

"I am up here on the mountain two or three times every week on patrol alone with the sculptures. I never tire of them," Kveene said.

"There is something different about them all the time. When it rains on the prairie at sunrise and conditions are just right the faces are blood red."

Kveene explained how changes in weather and light affect the way the heads of the four Presidents appear and described the eerie sensation of seeing the faces fading in and out through wisps of fog.

"The faces on the mountain just reach out and grab people, provoking a lot of patriotism many think they didn't have," said the ranger. "It's amazing how people stand there for the longest time not saying anything, just looking up at the mountain."

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