Travel Stories

South Dakota: Mount Rushmore's Secret Chamber

Called the Hall of Records, it was planned as a repository for the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The four presidential faces, carved 60-feet high in the granite of Mount Rushmore, comprise one of America’s most revered images. But many visitors cannot help thinking of Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest, where he and Eva Marie Saint clamber across the monolith pursued by Communist spies. The shot was actually filmed in a Hollywood studio, but it convinced millions of people that they, too, could climb the patriotic monument—not the case.

Access to Mount Rushmore has been blocked by a high-security fence ever since artist Gutzon Borglum died in 1941 and work on the giant sculpture ceased. According to his original plan, Borglum intended that the public be able to reach his giant faces via a splendid stone staircase. In the late 1930s, he even began work on a vault buried within the rock for tourists to visit. Called the Hall of Records, it was planned as a repository for the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Worried that future generations might find Mount Rushmore as enigmatic, Borglum also wanted a museum to store information on the four presidents—Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt—and an explanation of “how the memorial was built and, frankly, why.”

Unfortunately, the vault was never finished. Today, it’s simply an ever-narrowing passage that stretches about 80 feet into the rock, and one can run one’s fingers over granite walls still honeycombed with drill marks. Still, Borglum’s wish would be partly fulfilled. In 1998, the Park Service inscribed 16 porcelain panels with historical data about Mount Rushmore, secured them in a titanium-lined casket, and buried them in the incomplete Hall of Records—the last work expected to ever be done on the site.