YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Dynamos with dynamite

Behind the square-jawed symbols of history that tower in the Black Hills are unique, rocky tales of two men who, in the end, stand as partners on the Plains.

August 12, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

BLACK HILLS, S.D. — Borglum or Ziolkowski?

Within a day of arrival in the Black Hills of South Dakota, you'll run into this question, probably somewhere along U.S. 16 as you roll between two of the largest sculpted mountains on the face of the Earth.

Gutzon Borglum's Mt. Rushmore, of course, is your old friend from elementary school, and you think you know it well. Begun in 1927. Completed in 1941. Scrambled upon by Cary Grant in 1959's "North by Northwest." But all that supposed familiarity may crumble once you see the morning light at play on Washington and Jefferson's noble noses, the volume of Teddy Roosevelt's mustache and the sunken gravitas of Lincoln's cheeks, not to mention his famous mole, which, at this scale, is about the size of a basketball hoop.

It makes a startling difference, seeing a sculpture in three dimensions after you've gotten to know it in two -- especially when that sculpture tops a 450-foot mountain.

And it may be just as startling to learn that the man who made it spent most of his 50s as a mover and shaker in the Ku Klux Klan.

Now, while that sinks in, let me redirect your attention to a 600-foot mountain that stands 17 driving miles southwest of those faces on Rushmore. As you draw nearer to this mountain, you'll see that it has a face -- a face nine stories high.

This sculpture, begun not quite 60 years ago by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (pronounced jewel-CUFF-ski) at the invitation of a Lakota (Sioux) chief, shows the warrior Crazy Horse on horseback, pointing southeast to the lands where many of his people lie buried. The Crazy Horse Memorial is far larger than Mt. Rushmore, yet at the insistence of the sculptor, no government money has been spent on it. No big Indian casino money either, so far.

The sculptor has been dead for nearly 25 years, and the project is still far from completion. Also, an adult arriving by car pays $14 to get as close to the sculpture as a Rushmore visitor gets for $8. And we'll never know whether it's a good likeness. No known photograph of Crazy Horse exists, so the artist aimed for a symbolic portrait, not a literal one. "Aha!" you say. "So, is it really necessary to see Rushmore and Crazy Horse? After all, the Reptile Gardens are just up the road, and the drive-through bear park, the wax museum, the miniature golf course. . . ."


I started with Rushmore, which gets the better morning light. It's an easy 24-mile drive from Rapid City (where the airport is) or 22 miles from Custer or, easiest of all, three miles from the ticky-tacky tourist town of Keystone just down the hill. If you show up early enough, you'll get a shaded parking place.

From the Grand View Terrace, you can follow the half-mile loop trail that takes you to the base of the mountain and the sculptor's studio. As you move and the clouds drift and the sun advances, the faces change. The eavesdropping isn't bad either.

"Look at the striations!" said Alabama earth sciences teacher Rob Wilburn.

"Whose nose am I picking?" asked one 30ish woman, posing for a snapshot with a finger pointing skyward.

"Thomas Edison," said a boy at the other end of the terrace, identifying faces for his father.

In the evening presentation, the narrator emphasizes the four presidents' persistence amid hardship. It ends with a gathering onstage of the members of the audience who were or are in the military. As they line up, with a patriotic hymn swelling and those four great faces lighted behind them, you may feel a lump in your throat. It's no wonder that the year after Sept. 11, the number of visitors here increased more than 400,000, nearly 15%.

That symbolic power, said Judy Olson, the memorial's interpretation chief, has made it "a very political place" since its beginnings, when the sculptor raised a small ruckus by choosing to include Teddy Roosevelt along with the more venerated 18th and 19th century heroes Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. These days, Olson said, dissent more often comes from Native Americans who believe the sculpture should never have been undertaken in the first place.

Their argument is simple: An 1868 treaty with the U.S. government guaranteed that the Lakota could keep the Black Hills. But once gold was found and confirmed in 1874 (by Lt. Col. George Custer), the U.S. government and prospectors grabbed the land back and forced the Lakota elsewhere.

This land-grab history poses public-relations challenges for park Superintendent Gerard Baker, whose own family tree stems from the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples of North Dakota. And Borglum's résumé poses another such challenge.

Los Angeles Times Articles