Skip to content
Faceoff: Mount Rushmore vs. the Crazy Horse Memorial
Black Hills, S.D.
Borglum or Ziolkowski?
Within a day of arrival in the Black Hills of South Dakota, you'll run into this question, probably somewhere along U.S. 16 as you roll between two of the largest sculpted mountains on the face of the Earth.
Gutzon Borglum's Mt. Rushmore, of course, is your old friend from elementary school, and you think you know it well. Begun in 1927. Completed in 1941. Scrambled upon by Cary Grant in 1959's "North by Northwest." But all that supposed familiarity may crumble once you see the morning light at play on Washington and Jefferson's noble noses, the volume of Teddy Roosevelt's mustache and the sunken gravitas of Lincoln's cheeks, not to mention his famous mole, which, at this scale, is about the size of a basketball hoop.
It makes a startling difference, seeing a sculpture in three dimensions after you've gotten to know it in two -- especially when that sculpture tops a 450-foot mountain.
And it may be just as startling to learn that the man who made it spent most of his 50s as a mover and shaker in the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, while that sinks in, let me redirect your attention to a 600-foot mountain that stands 17 driving miles southwest of those faces on Rushmore. As you draw nearer to this mountain, you'll see that it has a face -- a face nine stories high.
This sculpture, begun not quite 60 years ago by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (pronounced jewel-CUFF-ski) at the invitation of a Lakota (Sioux) chief, shows the warrior Crazy Horse on horseback, pointing southeast to the lands where many of his people lie buried. The Crazy Horse Memorial is far larger than Mt. Rushmore, yet at the insistence of the sculptor, no government money has been spent on it. No big Indian casino money either, so far.
The sculptor has been dead for nearly 25 years, and the project is still far from completion. Also, an adult arriving by car pays $14 to get as close to the sculpture as a Rushmore visitor gets for $8. And we'll never know whether it's a good likeness. No known photograph of Crazy Horse exists, so the artist aimed for a symbolic portrait, not a literal one. "Aha!" you say. "So, is it really necessary to see Rushmore and Crazy Horse? After all, the Reptile Gardens are just up the road, and the drive-through bear park, the wax museum, the miniature golf course. . . ."
I started with Rushmore, which gets the better morning light. It's an easy 24-mile drive from Rapid City (where the airport is) or 22 miles from Custer or, easiest of all, three miles from the ticky-tacky tourist town of Keystone just down the hill. If you show up early enough, you'll get a shaded parking place.
From the Grand View Terrace, you can follow the half-mile loop trail that takes you to the base of the mountain and the sculptor's studio. As you move and the clouds drift and the sun advances, the faces change. The eavesdropping isn't bad either.
"Look at the striations!" said Alabama earth sciences teacher Rob Wilburn.
"Whose nose am I picking?" asked one 30ish woman, posing for a snapshot with a finger pointing skyward.
"Thomas Edison," said a boy at the other end of the terrace, identifying faces for his father.
In the evening presentation, the narrator emphasizes the four presidents' persistence amid hardship. It ends with a gathering onstage of the members of the audience who were or are in the military. As they line up, with a patriotic hymn swelling and those four great faces lighted behind them, you may feel a lump in your throat. It's no wonder that the year after Sept. 11, the number of visitors here increased more than 400,000, nearly 15%.
That symbolic power, said Judy Olson, the memorial's interpretation chief, has made it "a very political place" since its beginnings, when the sculptor raised a small ruckus by choosing to include Teddy Roosevelt along with the more venerated 18th and 19th century heroes Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. These days, Olson said, dissent more often comes from Native Americans who believe the sculpture should never have been undertaken in the first place.
Their argument is simple: An 1868 treaty with the U.S. government guaranteed that the Lakota could keep the Black Hills. But once gold was found and confirmed in 1874 (by Lt. Col. George Custer), the U.S. government and prospectors grabbed the land back and forced the Lakota elsewhere.
This land-grab history poses public-relations challenges for park Superintendent Gerard Baker, whose own family tree stems from the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples of North Dakota. And Borglum's résumé poses another such challenge.
If you rely on the pamphlet published by the Mount Rushmore History Assn., you get most of Borglum's story: a smart, talented and stubborn boy, born in 1867 in Idaho to a big immigrant family from Denmark. The boy takes to art early, studies in Europe, returns to take on steadily larger projects, puts down roots with a wife and two kids in Connecticut, has a sculpture acquired by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and says things like "beauty is as undefinable as spirit, and yet it is the dominating force in civilization."
At nearly 60, he takes on Rushmore, improvises techniques as he goes, revises the design nine times to accommodate cracks and other inconsistencies in the rock and produces one of the continent's greatest wonders.
But there is more. As Howard and Audrey Karl Shaff write in their biography, "Six Wars at a Time," Borglum's father, a doctor, was a Mormon bigamist who took a pair of sisters as wives. Christina Borglum, the sister who bore Gutzon, left him and the rest of the family when he was about 4.
Despite his fractured family, Borglum grew up with such artistic talent, charm, good looks and ambition that he not only won friends in high places but also kept them despite anti-Semitic writings ("Jews refuse to enter the mainstream of civilization, to become producing members of the world community . . . ") and other outrageous behavior. (Improbably, some of his good friends were Jewish.)
In about 1915, the Shaffs write, he signed on with the United Daughters of the Confederacy to carve a memorial at Stone Mountain in Georgia and soon rose to the high ranks of the newly resurgent Klan. Later he was fired from the memorial project and chased out of the state by his former boosters.
"My life has been a one-man war from its beginning," Borglum told one interviewer. But a friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, may have said it better: "Gutzon was for war, all sorts of war, six wars at a time."
With thousands of Americans and their children lining up daily at the monument for a dose of straight-ahead patriotism, what's the National Park Service supposed to do with these facts?
The Shaffs' book, out of print for several years, is absent from the bookstore, and polygamy and the KKK are absent from exhibition texts and films, which were last updated about a decade ago.
Back then, the Park Service's Olson notes, the agency "tended to tell the good side of the story, rather than the whole story." Now, in ranger talks, "we tell the whole story as it is, all sides," including the Klan, Olson said.
In fact, she added, it was Borglum's break with the Georgia project that made Rushmore possible. In 1924, as the Stone Mountain project was beginning to fall apart, South Dakota historian Doane Robinson invited Borglum to consider a monument to Western heroes in the Black Hills.
Borglum, never one to aim low, suggested Robinson think nationally, not regionally. In 1927, with President Coolidge on hand, drilling and demolition began.
In the Borglum studio, visitors see the sculptor's model, one-twelfth of the mountaintop's size, and learn how Borglum deployed retrained miners in dangling slings, then endured repeated work stoppages during the Depression as federal money dried up. While the sculptor crisscrossed the country making speeches and seeking backers, Borglum's eldest son, Lincoln, supervised work on the mountain.
And when Borglum died in 1941, it was Lincoln who led one final summer of drilling and chiseling, then declared the sculpture finished. (Lincoln Borglum died in 1986.)
It's astonishing, given all this, to learn that the whole project cost just less than $1 million to build, 84% of it paid by the federal government. It's equally surprising to read that not one worker died on the job. On your way out of the Rushmore viewing area, you can read the workers' names, all 400 of them.
And if you do, be sure look to the end of the list, where the Zs are, and prepare to hear somebody say:
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL
If you take a right turn on the way out of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and head west on South Dakota 244, the two-lane route will take you winding through a gorgeous Black Hills medley of pines, slopes and jutting boulders.
You may find yourself noticing that even the unsculpted granite around here looks pretty good -- but don't let those thoughts wander any further. What's dynamited is dynamited.
Eventually, you reach U.S. 16, and turn south toward the town of Custer. But before you get there, you'll see Custer's nemesis on your left.
Crazy Horse's face was completed in 1998. Despite Ziolkowski's death in 1982, the family's cause has grown into a $6-million-a-year tourist complex that employs 135 workers in peak summer months, using revenues and donations to bankroll work on the mountain. Along with Ziolkowski's widow, Ruth, seven of his 10 children work here.
For a $10 admission fee, you get to see the carving from about three-quarters of a mile away, prowl the growing Crazy Horse tourist complex and perhaps take home a blast fragment. For $4 more, you can advance by bus to the foot of the mountain. And for the $125 cost of a membership in the memorial's Grass Roots Club, you can ride up near the top of the mountain, stroll the 227-foot-long plateau that will be the warrior's outstretched arm, and peer up at that resolute granite face from 20 feet under the nose. The best time to catch the sun on Crazy Horse's face is late afternoon.
I happened to show up a little earlier, just in time for a 300-ton blast.
First, from a quarter of a mile away, I saw the rocks jump from a spot midway up the mountain, where the horse's flank will be. Then the sound reached me, an explosive clap. A plume of dust drifted skyward, so it seemed that Crazy Horse was squinting through it, and finally came the sound of newborn pebbles raining down on the base of the mountain. They do this about twice a week, a spokesman told me.
"I just can't conceive the engineering that's going into this," said Tom Welsh, a tourist from Central Islip, N.Y., as he gazed up from the base of the mountain.
Korczak Ziolkowski, born in Boston in 1908 to Polish immigrant parents and orphaned at age 1, grew up in foster homes, excelled in art and through his 20s built a reputation in Connecticut. He came to South Dakota in 1939, to take a key job working for Borglum -- and within three months was jobless, having butted heads with the boss' son.
But that same year, Ziolkowski won a sculpture prize at the World's Fair in New York and got a letter from Chief Henry Standing Bear in South Dakota.
The chief was looking for somebody to carve Crazy Horse, the Sioux warrior who prevailed over Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876 and was killed a year later. Dead before he was 40, Crazy Horse was among the last 19th-century Sioux who never signed a treaty, never left the Plains, never learned English, never lived on a reservation.
By 1948, the sculptor had served in World War II, moved back to South Dakota, split with his first wife, selected a site known as Thunder Mountain, acquired land, built a log cabin and started blasting. Pretty soon, instead of sculpting the top 100 feet as first planned, he was talking about carving the whole mountain. And building a university. And a hospital.
"Never forget your dreams," he liked to say.
During the next 34 years, Ziolkowski blasted millions of tons of granite off the mountain, took the former Ruth Ross of Connecticut as his second wife, fathered 10 children with her, grew a mountain-man beard, took private commissions in winter to pay some bills and set up a dairy farm and sawmill nearby to pay others. He also endured four spinal operations, heart bypass surgery and more broken bones than anyone dared count. (A spokesman says the Ziolkowski family also hasn't counted how much money has gone into the project.)
After his death, he was buried in a tomb at the foot of the mountain, and Ruth Ziolkowski took the reins of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
Now, all around the 1,500-square-foot cabin where the family first set up residence -- and where Ruth, 81, still lives -- an 80-room, 40,000-square foot Welcome Center sprawls. Visitors will find a studio, a museum, a gift shop, a sit-down restaurant that operates in summer months, an Indian cultural center where jewelry makers and other artisans sell work and a fleet of buses running up and down the wide gravel road to Thunderhead Mountain. Since 2005, a laser show has played on summer nights as well.
The university and medical center haven't materialized yet, but the organization does grant scholarships to Native American students, about $113,000 last year. Although some Lakota say they resent this use of their ancestral lands as much as they resent Mt. Rushmore, author Ian Frazier has noted in his book "Great Plains" that Crazy Horse "is the one place on the Plains where I saw lots of Indians smiling." I saw them too.
One evening at the Crazy Horse Laughing Waters Restaurant, I found Ruth Ziolkowski at a corner table with two of her daughters, being served a steak by one of her grandsons. I'd been told that she answers the visitor center phone, signs thank-you notes for every donation and counts the cash in the till most nights, so I asked her about the burden of running the family business.
"If you don't have any faith," she said, "if you don't have any imagination, if you don't have a dream -- what are you doing here?"
There's no answer to the question of when Crazy Horse will be done. With just one foreman and four driller-blasters on the payroll to translate Ziolkowski's 1/34th scale model into the granite, it could easily be a decade or more. It depends on money, geology and luck.
"How much more inspiring can you get than a family-run tradition?" said Jeff Kale, who had come from Toledo, Ohio, with his wife, their two kids and some nieces and nephews. He had seen Rushmore, Kale said, but "this is more amazing."
It certainly makes for a good yarn. But I won't choose between Borglum and Ziolkowski. These sculptors (both of whom died at age 74) disagreed about plenty, but in the end they stood as undeclared partners, having given us two unparalleled symbols of the cultures that collided on the Great Plains. They go together.
So, it's not entirely surprising to learn that, for over a decade, Gutzon Borglum's grandson James Borglum and Korczak Ziolkowski's daughter Monique Ziolkowski-Howe have been working as occasional carving partners. One of their sculptural collaborations, a full-body representation of Wild Bill Hickok, stands in Deadwood. Another attempts to illustrate the connection of all things in the Lakota universe. Lately, they've been working on something for a show in Sioux Falls.
Lewis and Clark, Butch and Sundance, Smith and Wesson. Why not Borglum and Ziolkowski?
Comments? Email email@example.com