Both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials are in the Black Hills of South Dakota. And both are colossal sculptures of important figures in American history carved into granite. They were both carved by an intensely visionary and sculptor who had tremendous determination in shaping the project and in overcoming all obstacles. Each artist died before completing their projects and they turned control over to their own families. But that is where their similarities end.
They had different artists, who had different visions.
Gutzon Borglum was the driving force behind Mount Rushmore. He was a trained, world-renowned sculptor. When he was offered a commission to carve a sculpture of Old West Heroes, he turned it in his own direction. He persuaded local tourism promoters to embrace a broader, more heroic vision—to immortalize four presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) who played critical roles in shaping America. He then spearhead raising of almost $1 million (in 1920 dollars), much of it from the federal government, to complete his work. He pioneered a number of new blasting and shaping techniques, which allowed him to complete the project in only 14 years.
While we’ve all seem pictures of Mount Rushmore, seeing it in person is very different. The National Park Service, as usual, has done an excellent job in presenting and explaining the site. The dramatic entry is along an avenue of the flags of the 50 states. The park provides a stately viewing station, interpretive visitor center, a trail that provides views of the monument from any different angles, and access to the sculptor’s studio. Guided walks are informative, albeit tuned at least as much to engage children as to educate adults.
As impressive as the sculpture is the story of how it was designed and constructed, the obstacles overcome, and the ingenious use of what today seem like primitive tools to complete the work. Tons of dynamite were used to remove more than 90 percent of the rock. And this does not even begin to account for the millions of dollars and the modern science and technology that is employed to maintain the work of art.
Korczak Ziolkowski was behind the neighboring, still in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial. He was a self-trained, much lesser known sculptor who fell in love with the Black Hills. He developed a deep respect for the Native Americans while serving as an assistant to Borglum on creating Mount Rushmore. After completing a number of sculptures of American Indians, he worked with the Oglala Sioux elders to define a subject for a memorial that would dwarf Mount Rushmore. In fact, the head of the in-process Crazy Horse monument is larger than all four of the Rushmore presidents combined. And this does not even begin to account for the chief’s arms or the horse on which he will be riding.
Unlike Borglum, Ziolkowski worked on a veritable shoestring. He refused to accept government funding and insisted on raising the funds solely from donations and admissions to the site and from the accompanying Native American Museum. And, while Mount Rushmore was completed in about 14 years, Crazy Horse, has been in process since 1948. Upon Ziolkowski’s death, his children took over work which is now estimated to be completed by 2037.
Judging from the differences between the model and the current state of the monument, one wonders it it will ever be completed.
Although the statue is more than a mile from the viewing station, visitors can take an optional $5 bus ride to get closer to the excavation site and see it from multiple perspectives. An introductory movie explains the project’s history and objective. Walk through the huge knotty pine complex that houses a museum of Indian antiquities, art, and representations of their lives. The site includes a cultural center, stores for buying memorabilia, and the sculptor’s studio home and workshop.
Overall, we are glad we visited both while in the area. Rushmore, is a national patriotic icon and Crazy Horse, while not yet all that much to see, is a poignant tribute to a man’s vision and determination. But, while we would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to take advantage of South Dakota’s Badlands, the Black Hills and Deadwood, we personally do not see these monuments, in and of themselves, as primary destinations.