The Hidden Room Behind Mount Rushmore

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In the 14 years he spent planning, sculpting, and overseeing the completion of the Mount Rushmore monument, artist Gutzon Borglum harbored a deep concern. He worried that his creation—one that used a 400-foot-long by 500-foot-wide rock canvas to depict the faces of four influential U.S. presidents—would one day be shrouded in mystery.

After all, Borglum reasoned, what did we really know about Stonehenge? Or Egyptian pyramids? Civilizations could rise and fall while Rushmore stood, its origins getting more clouded with time.

To make sure people in the future knew the history of his project and the meaning behind it, Borglum announced an ambitious addition: a massive room situated just behind Abraham Lincoln’s hairline that would contain all the information anyone would ever need about the mountain. It would even house major historical artifacts like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Borglum called it the Hall of Records. In 1938, he had workers begin blasting away with dynamite, carving what he wanted to be the most elaborate artist’s signature ever conceived.

The loud, brazen Borglum was born in 1867—at least, that’s the best information we’ve got. He enjoyed obfuscating his history, mixing and matching facts for his own amusement. A talented artist, Borglum thought he’d have a career in painting. When he saw his brother, Solon, making a reputation as a sculptor, sibling rivalry kicked in, and Borglum found he had even more to offer while working in clay.

After a modestly sized bust of Lincoln garnered Borglum national attention, he was invited to carve the faces of Confederate soldiers into Stone Mountain in Georgia. That work—which was never completed due to disagreements with local government—attracted the attention of Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s official state historian. Robinson told Borglum that a monument in the Black Hills of the state could be an excellent canvas for a work on a grand scale; in return, the state’s tourism statistics might flourish.

Borglum was intrigued. After scouting three mountains, he began to dwell on the possibilities present at Mount Rushmore. To draw national attention, he would focus on four presidents who had a tremendous impact on the country: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt. Each man would be depicted down to his waist. Alongside Washington would be a massive inscription detailing major events in U.S. history.

The actual carving began in 1927, with 30 men working at a time to blast rock with dynamite. The U.S. government subsidized most of the cost of labor, which would eventually amount to nearly $1 million.

As they doled out money, South Dakota and the federal backers were most concerned with Borglum etching the six-story tall faces into the east side of the mountain. But Borglum’s attention was diverted: as ambitious as the project was, he imagined something even greater. He wanted a room accessible to visitors that would have tablets explaining the work done, as well as busts of famous Americans and key documents like the Declaration of Independence. Those looking for admittance would climb an 800-foot-long staircase made from the blasted rock, then pass under a gold-plated eagle with a 38-foot wingspan.

The room began to take shape in 1938, when Borglum finally started blasting out an opening. A doorway 18 feet tall led to a room 75 feet long and 35 feet tall; red paint on the walls told workers where and how to extract the rock. Holes that housed the sticks of dynamite created a honeycomb effect.

Borglum’s ambition wasn’t shared by the government, which had a limited amount of funds to allocate and considered the room frivolous. South Dakota state senator Peter Norbeck wanted to help, and offered relief workers to assist in constructing the staircase. That way, federal funds wouldn’t have to be tapped.

Borglum, however, didn’t warm to the idea. He got a percentage of those federal funds, and using relief labor wouldn’t put any money in his pocket. He pushed the senator away in the belief he could grease the necessary wheels. 

Borglum’s self-confidence may have been his downfall. Governor William Bulow told him that finishing the faces was of the utmost priority, and that any ancillary work could be ignored until later. Any miner could blast a hole in the mountain—it took an artist to conceive of the actual sculpture.

Despite Borglum’s insistence he was in perfect health, Bulow’s urgency turned out to have merit. Borglum died in March 1941, leaving the Hall of Records unfinished.

With money and time at a premium, the government declared the monument more or less complete on Halloween 1941. Borglum’s ambition for a signature room would be costly, and no more work was done. It remains inaccessible to tourists.

His family wouldn’t drop the matter so easily. For decades, Borglum’s descendants petitioned the government to complete the room in honor of his work. Finally, in 1998, family members were able to assemble in the room and oversee a deposit of several porcelain tablets that explained the work done to the mountain. Lowered into a hole in the floor of the room, it was topped with a 1200 pound capstone. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society paid for the ceremony, which represented Borglum's posthumous completion of his landmark piece of art.

One of the tablets contains Borglum’s intention for both the mountain and the room inside of it:

"I want, somewhere in America, on or near the Rockies, the backbone of the Continent, so far removed from succeeding, selfish, coveting civilizations, a few feet of stone that bears witness, carries the likeness, the dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a Nation, placed so high it won't pay to pull them down for lesser purposes.

Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away."

All images courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

Art

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

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iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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