By Sen. John Thune
Few monuments or landmarks in the United States are more iconic or offer greater patriotic symbolism than does Mount Rushmore. Beginning in 1927, Gutzon Borglum helped transform a seemingly innocuous rock face in the Black Hills into the stoic and easily recognizable faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, which millions of visitors travel each year to see. Over 14 years of hot summers and cold winters, and with the help of 400 workers using chisels, jackhammers, and dynamite, Mount Rushmore was completed 75 years ago on October 31, 1941.
More than 2.1 million people from around the world visited Mount Rushmore in 2014. And over the last 75 years, U.S. presidents, celebrities, families on spring or summer vacation – people from all backgrounds and all corners of the globe – have flocked to the Black Hills to see firsthand the six-story granite faces of some of America’s greatest leaders. That diversity is emblematic of just how important Mount Rushmore is to South Dakota and to the rest of the United States.
The monument is symbolic for obvious reasons, but also because of the time period over which it was carved. Using both public and some privately raised funds during the Great Depression, the monument was completed by hard-working Americans who scaled hundreds of steps every day to clock in, put in a hard and dangerous day’s work, and clock out. While some workers put their lives on the line every day – dangling from the mountain’s edge – not a single person lost their life over the 14-year project.
I have a lot of memories at Mount Rushmore. I can remember traveling through the Black Hills and to Mount Rushmore as a kid. There’s nothing quite like taking that curve on Highway 244 at which point the stone faces start coming into view. Once I became a parent, Kimberley and I took that same drive with our girls and have returned time and again for lighting ceremonies, firework shows, and other events. I still return when I get the chance, because visiting Mount Rushmore never gets old. Earlier this month, I stopped by with Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior senator and my Democrat counterpart on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a recent trip through the Black Hills. And thanks to the decades-long public-private partnership with the Mount Rushmore Society, the monument has been and will continue to be a top destination in the United States.
Borglum did more than create a national treasure for the American people. He created a lasting tourist attraction that continues to be a boon for the local economy. Thanks in large part to state and national parks and memorials like Mount Rushmore, of which South Dakota is home to dozens, tourism is one of the state’s top industries. Tourism supports more than 50,000 jobs in the state, generates billions of dollars in economic activity, and accounted for $270 million in state and local tax revenue in 2015 alone. South Dakotans are proud of their state parks and the national park system, now in its 100th year, and they go above and beyond to provide a world-class experience for anyone who passes through.