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

Photo: Shutterstock
  • 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

Photo: Shutterstock

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

Photo: Shutterstock

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. 

Dynamite!

Photo #30 by Charles D’Emery / National Park Service

Dynamite was used to carve Mount Rushmore in a process called “honeycombing.”

According to the National Park Service, “Over 90% of Mount Rushmore was carved using dynamite. Dynamite blasts removed approximately 450,000 tons of rock from the mountain.” They add, “Dynamite was used until only three to six inches of rock was left to remove to get to the final carving surface. At this point, the drillers and assistant carvers would drill holes into the granite very close together. This was called honeycombing. The closely drilled holes would weaken the granite so it could be removed often by hand.” 

The above photo shows early construction on Lincoln.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom…

Photo #28 by Charles D’Emery / National Park Service

The project had to be completed, no matter what the South Dakota weather threw at the works — including snow, as seen in the photo above. 

As the National Park Service notes on their website, “The workers had to endure conditions that varied from blazing hot to bitter cold and windy. Each day they climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain to punch-in on the time clock. Then 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500 foot face of the mountain in a ‘bosun chair’. Some of the workers admitted being uneasy with heights, but during the Depression, any job was a good job.” 

Dangerous Work

Photo #31 by Charles D’Emery / National Park Service

More than 400 workers worked to sculpt Mount Rushmore. They had to climb 506 steps to its top each day. Much of the detail work had to be done like in the image above — suspended by cables and chains. From there, the workers would use their tools to carve the faces’ features.

Dangerous Work

Photo #29 by Charles D’Emery / National Park Service

Needless to say, the work was precarious and often dangerous, though this is one of the rare images showing someone working without a harness of some kind. 

Surprisingly, no workers died during the 14 years of blasting and carving that were used to create Mount Rushmore.

Who Was on That Crew?

Photo #32 by Charles D’Emery / National Park Service

While we’ve stated that 400 people worked on Mount Rushmore, they weren’t all sculpting, blasting, and jackhammering the rock. 

About 30 men worked on the monument at a time, but there were others involved as well. Blacksmiths forged tools and drill bits. Tramway operators oversaw the shuttling of equipment from the base of the mountain to the work zone. Men who worked the winches that raised and lowered the men working on the faces. “Call boys” would watch the skilled laborers and the winch houses, yelling instructions to the operators so they would know what to do. 

And, of course, there were the men who cut sticks of dynamite and placed them in holes to blast out sections of the granite. 

Photo #23 by Ed Menard / National Park Service

If you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, you will stop by The Lincoln Borglum Museum. It features two 125-seat theaters that show a 13-minute movie about the landmark, and one of the best viewpoints is located at Grandview Terrace, above the museum.

Inside the museum are a winch and other equipment used in the carving. As the NPS states, “Mount Rushmore is a project of colossal proportion, colossal ambition and colossal achievement. It involved the efforts of nearly 400 men and women. The duties involved varied greatly from the call boy to drillers to the blacksmith to the housekeepers. Some of the workers at Mount Rushmore were interviewed, and were asked, ‘What is it you do here?’ One of the workers responded and said, ‘I run a jackhammer.’ Another worker responded to the same question, ‘I earn $8.00 a day.’ However, a third worker said, ‘I am helping to create a memorial.’ The third worker had an idea of what they were trying to accomplish.” 

Construction Changes

Photo: YouTube

As stated, in the original design there was supposed to be more of the figures’ torsos in the sculpture, but budget and time ran out. Likewise, Thomas Jefferson was originally intended to appear on Washington’s right side, but after work there was begun, the rock was found to be unsuitable. The crew ended up dynamiting the Jefferson figure they’d started on, and his new figure was sculpted to Washington’s left.

This was not the only change in the design…

Construction: Roosevelt & Lincoln

Photo: Shutterstock

Moving Jefferson impacted Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln’s heads as well. 

To find solid rock for carving Roosevelt, the workers had to plunge 80 feet back from the original face of the mountain. Likewise, the crew ended up moving Abraham Lincoln’s head into the area intended for The Entablature, which was never added.

What was The Entablature? We found a design photo!

The Entablature

Photo: National Park Service

Original plans included a large inscription called The Entablature. Borglum wanted it shaped like the territory of the Louisiana Purchase using large, three-foot-tall letters.

According to the National Park Service, “The Entablature was to be a brief history of the United States, symbolized by Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, carved beside the four faces. The Entablature would emphasize that Mount Rushmore was a national memorial, commemorating the first 150 years of the United States, not just the lives of the four great men.”

The Entablature

Photo: YouTube

Crews began work on The Entablature in 1930, and soon the year 1776 was carved into the eastern side of the mountain. But when the heads needed to be moved, The Entablature was cut from the design due to limited space; besides, Borglum concluded it would be too hard to read for people at the base of the monument.

As the NPS notes, “Thus, it was decided that the inscription of historical events would go inside the Hall of Records, a room behind the sculpture, rather than on the front of the mountain. Gutzon Borglum died in 1941 before plans for the inscription were finalized.”

What, you ask, is the Hall of Records? THAT’s the secret room inside Mount Rushmore!

Construction

Photo: Shutterstock

In the above photo, workers carve Abraham Lincoln’s head. The head is granite and measures 66 feet from chin to crown, and the photo was shot on September 20, 1937.

The secret Hall of Records room is located on the mountain top behind the presidents’ heads — specifically, Abraham Lincoln.

Borglum’s Big Idea 

Photo: YouTube

After The Entablature idea was scrapped, Borglum wanted to create a large room within the mountain. According to the National Park Service, “This chamber would hold the documents and artifacts most central to American democratic history. The proposed large room, 80 by 100 feet was to be drilled into the north wall of the small canyon behind the faces. His scheme also called for an 800-foot granite stairway to reach the room. The steps would begin near his studio, rise gradually to meet the canyon mouth behind Lincoln’s head, and then lead to the entrance of the great hall.”

While the actual room wasn’t constructed as planned, part of it is there and we did find an illustration of the original plan…