The majestic, chiseled countenances of four beloved American presidents have made Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills a point of national pride and a popular tourism attraction that draws more than 2 million spectators a year.
But before the towering mountain memorialized George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, it honored Charles E. Rushmore, the New York City lawyer and financier who built what today is the Rushmore Estate in the Hudson River Valley.
“Rushmore traveled to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims in the region,” according to History.com. “When Rushmore asked a local man the name of a nearby mountain, he reportedly replied that it never had a name before, but from now on would be known as Rushmore Peak (later Rushmore Mountain or Mount Rushmore).”
The mountain’s granite formation, on sacred Native American land, originally was called Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain, by the Lakota tribe. It was a place for prayer and devotion for the native people of the Great Plains, according to National Geographic.
But others had grand visions to capitalize on the mountain as well.
“Doane Robinson, a historian at the South Dakota State Historical Society, believed the state needed more to entice tourists,” National Geographic reported. “In 1924, learning about an attempt to carve the likenesses of Confederate leaders into the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia, Robinson launched a campaign to create South Dakota’s own mountain men.”
Robinson’s influence won out, and sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum began work on the 60-foot-high presidential faces in 1927. Work, which included dynamite blasting, continued until Borglum’s death in 1941, and his son Lincoln completed the effort later that year.
Mount Rushmore has become not only a symbol of America’s greatness, but an eye-catching pop-culture fascination. For example, Mount Rushmore was a filming location in 1959’s “North by Northwest.”
While some tribes maintain that Mount Rushmore’s land still belongs to Native Americans, Mount Rushmore is now a National Park Service site – honoring not only the presidents, but Charles Rushmore himself. He described the process of the mountain’s naming in a 1925 letter:
“Late in 1883 the discovery of tin in the Black Hills was brought to the attention of a group of gentlemen in New York City and excited their interest. I was a youthful attorney at the time, and was employed by these gentlemen early in 1884 to go to the Black Hills and secure options on the Etta mine, and other cassiterite locations. My mission required me to remain several weeks in the Hills, and to return there on two or three later occasions in that year and in 1885. Part of my time was spent among prospectors at Harney, and at a log cabin built in that neighborhood. In my life among these rough, but kindly, men I conformed to their ways, and, may I say it with becoming modesty, was in favor with them.
“I was deeply impressed with the Hills, and particularly with a mountain of granite rock that rose above the neighboring peaks. On one occasion while looking from near its base, with almost awe, at this majestic pile, I asked of the men who were with me for its name. They said it had no name, but one of them spoke up and said “We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.” That was the origin of the name it bears, and, as I have been informed, it is called Rushmore Peak, Rushmore Mountain and also Rushmore Rock.”