What’s Inside the Secret Room in Mount Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is more than a sculpture carved into the side of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, USA. It’s more than a depiction of four American Presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln — who represent the first 130 years of American history. And while a lot of people have heard about the chamber hidden inside this magnificent structure, the story is more than just what’s inside the secret room in Mount Rushmore.

This is a story of an idea brought to life by Americans willing to put their lives on the line to create a grand memorial. It’s also a monument with secrets, from ties to white supremacy and the KKK, to that much-discussed secret chamber located in the stone. Check out the images as we dig into this great American landmark.

Fun Facts

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  • Mount Rushmore stands at 5,725 ft (1,745 m) above sea level.
  • It was chosen due to its grand location, quality granite, and because it faced southeast. That means it gets maximum sun exposure, which helped maximize working hours.
  • Initially, it was planned for the figures to be carved from head to waist, but a shortage in funding didn’t allow for this.
  • The whole project cost $989,992.32.

Doane Robinson – The Visionary

What's Inside the Secret Room in Mount Rushmore
Photo: National Park Service

Local historian Doane Robinson is credited for coming up with the idea for Mount Rushmore in 1923. He wanted to promote tourism in South Dakota. 

Robinson gained support for the project, and in 1929 President Calvin Coolidge approved it after Congress authorized funding. Now he just needed to find a sculptor to do the job…

Gutzon Borglum — The Sculptor

Photo: YouTube

Gutzon Borglum, a famous Dutch-American sculptor, was selected for the Mount Rushmore project. 

Originally, Doane Robinson wanted to have the monument sculpted on The Needles, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This is a region of eroded granite pillars, towers, and spires within Custer State Park. But Borglum rejected the Needles. He didn’t like the poor quality granite, and there was strong opposition from the Lakota (Sioux), who consider the Black Hills to be sacred ground, and The Needles were originally included in the Great Sioux Reservation. 

It’s said that the sculptor and tribal representatives “settled” on Mount Rushmore, but that doesn’t mean Borglum was a great peacemaker.

What's Inside the Secret Room in Mount Rushmore
Photo: Shutterstock

Prior to working on Mount Rushmore, Borglum had been hired by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to build a “shrine to the South” near Atlanta. While he had no ties to the Confederacy, Smithsonian Magazine noted that he had white supremacist leanings. 

“In letters he fretted about a ‘mongrel horde’ overrunning the ‘Nordic’ purity of the West … [and he] aligned himself with the Ku Klux Klan, an organization reborn—it had faded after the Civil War—in a torch-light ceremony atop Stone Mountain in 1915.” While there isn’t proof that Borglum joined the Klan, “he nonetheless became deeply involved in Klan politics,” John Taliaferro wrote in Great White Fathers, his 2002 history of Mount Rushmore.

Borglum and those bosses had multiple disagreements, and when he got the offer from Doane Robinson to work on Mount Rushmore, he left Atlanta.

Above, Borglum can be seen standing on a ladder with his model of the Mount Rushmore memorial in 1936. Notice how much of the bodies were supposed to be seen in the original design.

What's Inside the Secret Room in Mount Rushmore
Photo: Shutterstock

Between October 4, 1927, and October 31, 1941, Borglum and 400 workers sculpted 60-foot-high carvings of United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. While other historic figures had been considered, these four were chosen to represent the first 130 years of American history, and for their role in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory.

Borglum died in March 1941 and his son, Lincoln Borglum, continued the work and it was completed later that year.

More Hidden Secrets

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While Borglum’s history was kept secret in history books, his legacy for creating this grand monument holds as strong as the granite Mount Rushmore is built upon. 

Another of his secrets? A chamber is hidden behind one of the president’s heads. We have photos of it, an explanation for why it was created, what’s inside it today — as well as a VIDEO — further in the article. 

First, let’s explore the monument’s construction and impact on society with historic photos.

Iconic the World Over

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Mount Rushmore is as iconic as other national landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, or the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. 

This, for example, is a reproduction of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (and other famous places in the United States) at the Window of the World theme park in Shenzhen, China. 

It’s also played a key role in popular culture.

Pop Culture Power

Superman II (Photo: YouTube)

Because the monument features four great American leaders, it’s an easy target for movies, shows, video games and more. An attack on this site is an attack on America itself, like in the above scene from Superman II. A similar idea happened in the 1996 film Mars Attacks!, and a more inclusive appearance was planned for  Star Trek V where an African American woman’s face was supposed to be added.

But probably the most memorable movie appearance was in the Alfred Hitchock thriller, North by Northwest.

North by Northwest

Photo: YouTube

Mount Rushmore was famously used in the climactic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest. The scene was not actually filmed at the monument because the National Park Service refused the request. According to The Take, “rumor got out that the film involved a fight scene and a couple deaths on the face of the monument, and government officials banned the production from filming there. Mt. Rushmore had to be recreated on a Hollywood set.”

North by Northwest

Other scenes, including the view of the Memorial’s parking lot, the Memorial concession, and surrounding locations were actually shot at Mount Rushmore. However, it was Hollywood trickery of using sets, lighting, and practical effects mixed with real locations that made the movie’s ending seem so believable to audiences everywhere.

North by Northwest came out in 1959 and stars Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason. It’s a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man being pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm containing government secrets.

Three photos: YouTube

The two most memorable images from the film include Cary Grant being chased by someone in an airplane, as well as he and Eva Marie Saint on Mount Rushmore. Both scenes have been used extensively in various movie posters.

Photo: YouTube

So it’s role in American cinema is iconic, but how was it built, why is there a hidden chamber in the landmark, and what’s inside the secret room in Mount Rushmore. Here’s the history behind that story.

Construction

Photo: YouTube

Originally, historian Doane Robinson wanted Mount Rushmore to feature American West heroes, such as Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Lewis and Clark expedition guide Sacagawea, among others. But Borglum believed that the sculpture should have a broader appeal and chose the four presidents: George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).

He also wanted to add a chamber that most people don’t know about.