The Story Behind Mount Rushmore’s Secret Room

Perhaps it wasn't okay to put a giant hole in Lincoln's head?

Full of secrets Image National Park Service

Mount Rushmore was quite an undertaking, with sculptor Gutzon Borglum spending a grand total of 14 years on the landmark.

The American monument is carved into the granite of the Black Hills of Keystone, South Dakota and contains the 60-foot busts of four significant US presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt.

Borglum was a bombastic man, with visions of grandeur. The original ambitious design was meant to include both the head and chest of the presidents. Despite the hills being sacred to Native Americans. 

Workmen on the scene at the Mount Rushmore Memorial. Image National Geographic News

Worried that this work of art would be retired to history and his name discarded with time, he was desperate to leave his mark deeply etched into the igneous rock and soon devised a plan to include a room literally within the head of Abraham Lincoln.

He called it the ‘Hall of Records’ and in 1938 workers began blasting away rock, forming what he hoped would become a 75 feet long and 35 feet tall room housing tablets detailing the construction of Mount Rushmore, busts of famous Americans and documents like the Declaration of Independence.

To get to it, visitors would climb an 800-foot staircase and pass under an entrance guarded by a gold eagle with a 38-foot wingspan.

In a way, he was creating his own tomb of antiquity and egocentricity.

Gutzon Borglum Image Alchetron

The room was a large enterprise and pried his attention away from the rock sculptures. The American government wasn’t having any of it and forced Borglum to refocus his priorities towards finishing the president’s faces.

Despite his insistence that he could finish both within the allotted time, Borglum died in 1941, two years after beginning the unfinished ‘Hall of Records.’ Mount Rushmore was also left only partially done.

Nevertheless, the American government declared Mount Rushmore completed and made the room behind Lincoln’s head inaccessible to visitors. That is until Borglum’s descendants petitioned tirelessly to have the intended tablets placed in the chamber. In 1998, they got their wish.

A message from Borglum on one of the tablets reads:

“I want, somewhere in America, on or near the Rockies, the backbone of the Continent, so far removed from succeeding, selfish, coveting civilizations, a few feet of stone that bears witness, carries the likeness, the dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a Nation, placed so high it won’t pay to pull them down for lesser purposes. Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

76 years on from his death, Borglum’s legacy lives on.


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