Mount Rushmore - Ryan O'Hara

Who Built Mount Rushmore?

A few observations before beginning to write about the workers who built Mt. Rushmore. First, this article would probably have been more appropriate for a Labor Day post, but as a blogger with five years worth of postings (think 260 articles); I have to seize a blog topic when it pops into my mind. Second, some articles sound great when I schedule the topic, but turn out less well – or at least differently – than I expect. This article is one of those that didn’t quite realize the original goal.

The saga starts last July when I visited Mount Rushmore National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Much has been written about Gutzon Borglum–who was lured away from his carving at Stone Mountain (Georgia) to initiate work on the new mountain-side sculpture—and people like Doane Robinson, known as the “Father of Mount Rushmore; John Boland who helped raise funds and monitored expenses; Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota; Congressman William Williamson who successfully realized Congressional funding and brought President Calvin Coolidge for a visit in 1927; and, the mountain’s namesake, New York City Attorney Charles E. Rushmore, who in the late 1880s conducted title searches in the Black Hills area. Scarcely anything is known, however, of the individuals who actually did the manual labor to create the monument.

During my visit, I noticed a plaque, located quite conspicuously in the entrance arcade, listing all the names of the individuals who worked on the monument (a list is available at the National Park Service’s Mount Rushmore website). Those 400 names piqued my interest. Each name documents an enormous effort, despite extremes of weather and physical dangers, over the long span of fourteen years (1927 to 1941) which it took to complete the project. As a visitor standing in the entranceway looking up, I found it hard to imagine the every-day experiences that produced the final monument to our some of our nation’s most influential leaders.

I left the Black Hills with the idea that I would, at some point, discover a little about the workers. One of the first things that I noticed was the imaginative nicknames listed for many of them, which seemed to offer tantalizing snapshots of personalities. Were Edward Anton, nicknamed “Pee Wee,” and Frank Hudson, nicknamed, “Shortie,” really short? Why was Albert Gensler called “Babe?” Did Lloyd Virtue, live up to his nickname of “Lively,” or did Leonard “Red” Zwanziger have red hair? Was Alton Parker “Hoot” Leach, the father of Clyde Arthur “Little Hoot” Leach? (Perhaps we don’t want to wonder why H.V. Huntimer was called “Big Dick!”) Nicknames notwithstanding, I imagined that I would easily be able to identify these men – and occasional women – through the 1930 and 1940 censuses and then be able to provide brief vignettes about some of the more interesting individuals. In actuality, I discovered that the research, if it were to be done thoroughly and well, required far more time than I had available to devote to the effort.

I began by starting with the first name, searching for them in the 1930 federal census for South Dakota. This method quickly proved both time consuming and fairly fruitless; a new strategy was required. I consulted Ann S. Lainhart’s State Census Records (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008) from which I learned that a 1935 state census existed for South Dakota. I mentally crossed my fingers and checked first Ancestry and then FamilySearch and discovered that the latter provided access to digitized images from that 1935 census. I once again began my methodical approach to researching the workers’ names.

In fact, I was able to locate some individuals in the 1935 census. I was ecstatic when I identified an entry for O. E. Anderson (Otto E. on the plaque), aged 33, born in South Dakota, living with his spouse (maiden name Hamilton) in the 2nd township in Keystone (the location of Mount Rushmore), Pennington County, South Dakota. His occupation? Stone cutter! As I began to locate other names from the plaque, I began to see a pattern: many individuals, served by the Keystone Post Office lived in Township 2, section 6E, identified as being in the northern Black Hills area. When I could make a definite match, I discovered laborers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics, all possible trades that would have been employed during construction.

With the township and section more clearly defined, I re-visited to the 1930 federal census, now focused on a search in Pennington County. Rather than search name by name (there are 400 names after all), I decided to browse the township, line by line, through at least one part of township 2, section 6. I quickly discovered that I could scan down the occupation column as workers were clearly identified when they were involved in the Mount Rushmore project. Thus I was able to confirm that Harvey Brown was a 48-year-old blacksmith, born in South Dakota and residing with his wife and one child, and employed at Mount Rushmore. J.C. Denison was a 58-year-old head of household, born in South Dakota, and working at Mount Rushmore as a laborer. Lodgers in his household included Charles Flathers, a 44-year-old laborer, born in Iowa; and Loid E. Whitney, a 40-year-old laborer, born in South Dakota, both employed at the monument project. Laborers were of all ages, including Charles O. Chaney (Charles O. Cheney on the plaque), who was a 68-year-old widower, born in Ohio. His age provides some insight into his nickname – “Pops.” Harry Burchard, aged 33 and born in Iowa of Germany parents, was a laborer, living with his wife Charlott [sic], and children Ruby, 10, born in Minnesota; Darrell, 8; Kathryn 5; Wayne, 3; and Roger 1; all born in South Dakota. The household of Raymond Groves, a 48-year-old stonemason who was born in Minnesota, suggests that individuals in that trade followed their craft from place to place, as he had a son, Walter, aged 18, born in Minnesota; a daughter Alma, aged 15, born in Montana; and a daughter Vivian, aged 5, born in South Dakota.

Some of the 400 were neither in the 1930 federal census for South Dakota nor in the 1935 South Dakota state census. In some cases I couldn’t confirm that a census-enumerated individual with the same name as a Rushmore worker were one and the same. Was Walter G. Atwell for example,  a construction engineer living in King County, Washington in 1930 and in Tulare County, California in 1940, the same Walter G. Atwell listed on the plaque? Only further research could say. Others may have worked on the project for only a few years between censuses. Still others have their stories available online, such as that of Luigi Del Bianco, the chief carver of the monument. He immigrated to Barre, Vermont, a stone cutting center, from Italy prior to WW I, returned to fight for his native country during World War I, and returned to the U.S. after the war. From Barre, he moved to Port Chester, New York, where he was enumerated in the 1930 census with his wife, Nellie, and sons Silvio and Vincent. He had worked for Borglum at Stone Mountain and other projects, and was brought into the Mount Rushmore project in 1933. In 1940, he was enumerated in Westchester, New York, employed as a stone cutter for a WPA project.

I only wish I had the time to continue delving into the lives of the 400 workers. Further information can be located through diligent searches of newspaper articles, other collections of South Dakota and Pennington County records, and with deeper searching through online resources and printed material. Little by little, this list of 400 names can give up its stories and provide insight into the everyday workings of the monument project. These individuals are indeed more than “just names on a wall” (to quote the Statler Brothers).

Photo Credit: Ryan O’Hara

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