Segment from Blasts from the Past

Blasting Presidents' Faces Into A Rock

How do you use sticks of dynamite to make a sculpture– let alone one with the grand scale and intricate detail of Mt. Rushmore? Lizzie learns about the daring men, and precise methods, behind one of America’s most iconic monuments.

Music (first two segments, all by Breakmaster Cylinder):

Gentle Push 4 – You’ve Got a Pulse and You Are Breathing

I Can Dig It He Can Dig It She Can Dig It We Can Dig It They Can Dig It You Can Dig It

Hit The Ground Running

Conversation Shuffle – Past to Present

Cascade Blasters

An Egg Shaped Room For Your Thoughts

Just Leave Me Submerged

Dropped Washed

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Lizzie Peabody: All right, here we go. Any third grader who’s had to draw a self portrait can tell you it’s not easy. The subtlest tweak to lips or eyebrows changes a face completely. Creating a portrait requires precision, which is why I am confounded by Mount Rushmore. From the Black Hills of South Dakota, four Presidents; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, gaze out of the mountainside. They are instantly recognizable and they’re big.

Marueen M-B: If you want to compare George to a house, his face is as big as a six-story house.

Lizzie Peabody: That’s Maureen McGee Ballinger. She’s the Chief of Interpretation at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I called her up because I needed help understanding one thing: how do you sculpt a face using dynamite?

Marueen M-B: There’s documentation that one of their first blasts, they used too much, the stick was too big, and they blew a boulder off over 186 feet in the air. It flew across, it hit the tramway and snapped one of the cables. So yeah, there was some trial and error.

Lizzie Peabody: And using dynamite wasn’t even the original plan. Mount Rushmore’s designer, an artist named Gutzon Borglum; I’ll say it one more time for you, Gutzon Borglum; he thought he’d sculpt the whole thing using drills and chisels, but he realized very quickly that that wasn’t going to (clears throat) cut it. At the rate they were moving, they’d be lucky to finish George’s nose in Borglum’s lifetime.

Marueen M-B: The carving officially started October 1st, 1927. By October 25th, 1927, Borglum had said we need to start using dynamite. This is a quote from Gutzon Borglum, “Blasting won’t be used often, and to avoid cracking portions that would be used on the figures, it’s used with the utmost caution.” Well, it turns out that wasn’t true. It was used a lot. And what they-

Lizzie Peabody: How much is a lot?

Marueen M-B: 90 percent of the sculpture was carved with dynamite.

Lizzie Peabody: Wow. Okay, that’s a lot.

Marueen M-B: Over 500,000 tons of rock removed with dynamite.

Lizzie Peabody: So they were blasting every day?

Marueen M-B: They were blasting every day, twice a day.

Lizzie Peabody: It took a lot of men to make this happen. Gutzon Borglum oversaw 400 workers during the 14 years it took to sculpt Mount Rushmore. They were skilled laborers. They were used to working with dynamite and they could follow directions, but they weren’t artists. That’s why he needed Luigi del Bianco.

Marueen M-B: Luigi was named chief carver, and he’s the only person that ever had that title of chief carver.

Lou del Bianco: He was not only Borglum’s assistant and right-hand man who was charged with carving the refinement of expression in the faces. In other words, when you see the humanity in those faces as if they live and breathe, that is pretty much from the hands of my grandfather.

Lizzie Peabody: This is Lou del Bianco, Luigi’s grandson and namesake.

Lou del Bianco: What I remember most of all was when he would take me by the shoulders and he would say, “I am Luigi, you are Luigi.” And I just think that that cemented a bond between the two of us.

Lizzie Peabody: Lou has spent years documenting his grandfather’s work on Mount Rushmore, and learning exactly how the blasting was done so artfully. First, Borglum made an exact model of the sculpture in his studio; a lot smaller than the mountain, but actually still pretty big. Each face was about five feet tall. Then he carefully measured every dimension of the model, multiplied those measurements by 12, and mapped them onto the mountain.

Lizzie Peabody: Help me understand. So they have these points, they have these measurements. They take them up to the mountain face, and then what? Did they plant dynamite like at that very spot?

Lou del Bianco: Yes, they would drill holes in the area that they wanted to remove and they would cut the dynamite in different lengths. Obviously, the bigger the length, the bigger the blast.

Marueen M-B: When you see photos of them doing it, it’s like they’re cutting a carat. And you think, “Wow, I didn’t know you could cut dynamite.”

Lizzie Peabody: These guys cutting the dynamite were known as powder men.

Lou del Bianco: And they could cut, like, little half-inch lengths of dynamite and put them in these little detonators with copper caps that would go, it had electrical wires that would go to a detonator.

Marueen M-B: And it was detonated so all of them would go off at the same time. You might have 60 to 70 shots going off at the same time.

Lou del Bianco: And sheets of rock would come off in perfect layers.

Lizzie Peabody: Obviously, safety was a concern. So they were using this dynamite; they were using it twice a day. They were setting off these massive coordinated explosions. And I mean over 14 years, or I guess if they started the second year it would have been 13 years of blasting dynamite twice a day, were there ever any casualties? Were there any injuries?

Marueen M-B: No casualties. They did have one afternoon when a thunderstorm had rolled through, and they already placed the dynamite on the sculpture, but not all the workers had gotten off the sculpture yet. Thunderstorm hit down below and it hit power lines, and it sent a surge of power all the way up the line into the detonator box. It opened the switch, it set off the blasting caps, which set off the dynamite. And the gentleman who was sitting right over the top of one of them, he was in what they called a Boson’s chair; kind of a piece of leather around the middle and you’re sitting in it like a swing. And it blasted him away from the sculpture and then back into it. And he survived. He got banged up, bumps and bruises, but he recovered. [inaudible 00:14:33] claimed you could never fall out of those Boson’s chairs, and if there was a proof of it, it was that blast.

Lizzie Peabody: Let me stop for a moment and point out how insane this is. Close your eyes and imagine dangling off the edge of the 46th floor of a building, 500 feet in the air, holding a giant drill, while sitting in a child’s playground swing. That’s so high, you wouldn’t even be able to make out people on the ground below.

Lou del Bianco: I mean, they had the sun beating on the back of their head. Their face was white like a ghost from the dust. And if it was a really windy day, mm-hmm (affirmative), you just had to deal with the wind moving you around. And you were doing really precise work, so your body just took a beating.

Lizzie Peabody: Measure, drill, blast, repeat. Most of the work on Mount Rushmore combined precise measurements with brute force. But when making a sculpture, engineering only gets you so far. And Lou says the finishing touches to Mount Rushmore were done by feel. When the blasting was done, del Bianco brought a mask of each face he worked on to the mountain so that he could kind of …

Lou del Bianco: … move that expression to the larger face. That’s what he was able to do.

Lizzie Peabody: Yeah, I’m picturing him reading the two surfaces almost like Braille; like, by feel.

Lou del Bianco: Exactly, yeah. No, I think that’s a great analogy.

Lizzie Peabody: And some parts of the sculpture were more detailed than others. For example, how do you make an 11-foot wide eye look human? If you look closely, there’s a secret in the design.

Marueen M-B: Usually prior to this, an artist carving an eye would make it concave or convex, one way or the other. Borglum carved the eye but left a stand of granite right in the center, a post. So as the light moves across the sculpture during the day, the shadow of that post changes so it looks as if the Presidents are looking in different directions at different times of the day.

Lizzie Peabody: That’s a stroke of brilliance. That’s like a sundial.

Marueen M-B: Yes, very similar. And yes, it was a stroke of brilliance.

Lizzie Peabody: Is it fair to say that it would not have been possible to carve Mount Rushmore without dynamite?

Marueen M-B: Yes. It would have just taken too long.

Lizzie Peabody: In 1941, Borglum died, the U.S. entered World War II, and construction on Mount Rushmore halted, as complete as it would ever be. The bodies that Borglum had planned to sculpt never materialized. But if not for dynamite, the statue would look very different than it does today. It’s hard to imagine three million people a year trekking out to visit the Great Nose of South Dakota.

Brian Balogh: That’s a great story, Lizzie, and I think it’s important to mention that while many Americans appreciate Mount Rushmore for how it portrays beloved Presidents, local Native American tribes have considered these lands sacred for generations. So the faces blasted into the granite don’t mean the same thing to everyone.

Lizzie Peabody: Right. Just 40 years before the construction on Rushmore began, the government granted the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux, but that only lasted as long as it took prospectors to find gold.

Brian Balogh: So there’s a complicated history behind Mount Rushmore. But from an engineering perspective, sculpting it with dynamite remains impressive.

Lizzie Peabody: So that’s our dynamite story. Brian, you’re going to share another surprising tale of dynamite.

Brian Balogh: You bet.