Inside the Mount Rushmore Secret Room

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Mount Rushmore, one of our most famous national monuments, was completed seventy-five years ago. But despite the fact that it's an icon of national pride, there's still a lot that most Americans don't know about it. Were you aware of the Mount Rushmore secret room? Behind the bust of Abraham Lincoln, there lies a hidden doorway that was meant to open onto a secret chamber, designed to store the country's most important historical documents.

The doorway, eighteen feet tall, can be found carved into the granite behind Lincoln's head. Past the door, visitors enter a 75 foot long chamber with a 35 foot high ceiling. Its walls are peppered with holes meant to hold explosives. Construction was cut short before the room could be finished.

The room was both a functional and symbolically important part of sculptor Gutzon Borglum's original vision for the monument. Speaking about the mountain, Borglum said, "You might as well drop a letter into the world's postal service without an address or signature, as to send that carved mountain into history without identification." The presidential busts were meant to be a relic for future generations, even aliens.

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Despite the fact that the four presidents were four of the most publicly recognized people in the country, Borglum worried that the familiarity would wane, stripping the monument of any meaningful context. "Each succeeding civilization forgets its predecessor," he warned. "Civilizations are ghouls."

Originally, he wanted to engrave an 80-by-120-foot mosaic into the piece of mountain that eventually became Lincoln. The inscription was to list the nine most important events in American history between Independence and 1906. When it became clear that the text would be illegible from the ground, he abandoned the idea in favor of constructing a chamber he called the "Hall of Records."

Visitors to the Hall would ascend an 800-foot staircase to find a library of historically important documents. "Into this room the records of what our people aspired to and what they accomplished should be collected, and on the walls of this room should be cut the literal record of conception of our republic; its successful creation; the record of its westward movement to the Pacific; its presidents; how the Memorial was built, and frankly, why."

Borglum's plans included many ostentatious flourishes, including twenty smaller busts of important citizens and a massive bronze eagle bearing the inscription "America's Onward March." His full vision was never to be realized.

Federal funding was redirected towards the completion of the busts themselves, and the Mount Rushmore secret room was sidelined despite Borglum's objections. He died in 1941, and his son Lincoln picked up the reins. Lincoln saw the busts through to completion but the Hall remained unfinished.

In 1998, Borglum's descendants placed sixteen porcelain-enameled panels in the chamber, featuring the text of important documents like the Declaration of Independence. The panels were put in a wooden box inside of a titanium vault, buried in the ground and sealed with a huge slab of black granite.

Unfortunately, the Mount Rushmore secret room is closed to the public.


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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.