One-Time Barre Stonemason Finally Gets Credit For Role On Mount Rushmore

Jun 21, 2016

There are few more impressive combined engineering and artistic marvels in this country than Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. One of the individuals who had an integral role in its creation was its chief carver, Luigi Del Bianco, an Italian immigrant who spent some time as a stonemason in Barre.

But while the mastermind behind Mount Rushmore – Gutzon Borglum – received ample recognition for his role in Mount Rushmore's creation, Del Bianco's name was overlooked for decades.

Author Douglas Gladstone has a real problem with people not receiving the recognition they are due. That's why he's written Carving a Niche for Himself: The Untold Story of Luigi Del Bianco.

Gladstone told Vermont Edition about Del Bianco, beginning with a description of Barre in 1907, the year Del Bianco moved there from Italy as a teenager.

"Of the 12,000 people who lived in Barre at the outset of the twentieth century, about 4,500 of them worked in the granite industry," Gladstone explains. "That's why even today, Barre's unofficial nickname is the 'Granite Center of the World.'"

Del Bianco's cousins told him coming to the United States could be a good option to find work in his trade, Gladstone says. Following his time in Barre, Del Bianco eventually went back to Italy to fight for his home country and then lived in Port Chester, N.Y. His brother-in-law introduced him to Borglum, who took Del Bianco under his wing, Gladstone says.

Although work on Mount Rushmore began in 1927, Del Bianco's involvement in the project didn't actually begin until 1933, Gladstone explains. That's when the original chief architect Hugo Villa was fired from the project and Del Bianco was brought on board by Borglum.

"The first task that Del Bianco is given, his first instructions, are to blow the [Thomas] Jefferson face off the top of the mountain," Gladstone says. The original Jefferson face was actually on the opposite side of George Washington than where it is today. As Gladstone explains, the story goes that Borglum had heard someone mistake the original Jefferson face for Martha Washington, which prompted this decision for the president's face to be re-done in the current location.

Mount Rushmore is pictured here May 2, 1933, which was the year Del Bianco began working on the project. His first assignment was to remove the existing face of Jefferson so it could be re-done on the other side of Washington.
Credit AP

Del Bianco may have begun by destroying the previous face of Jefferson, but Gladstone says that it was the work he did on a different president's face that really stuck with him.

"Del Bianco was most proud of the fact that the pupils in [Abraham] Lincoln's eyes, they came alive," Gladstone explains. "That's what Del Bianco was most proud of - the refinement of expression he was tasked with. He did other things. He patched the crack in Jefferson's lip ... but his pride and joy was always the pupils of Lincoln's eyes."

While Del Bianco was recognized as chief carver at the time by Borglum himself, not everyone has historically provided him with that specific recognition.

"In spite of the fact that Gutzon Borglum's own correspondence in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress clearly indicates in a July 30, 1935 letter that Del Bianco is indeed the chief carver, the National Park Service never recognized Del Bianco," Gladstone explains. "And I have always maintained – and so has the Del Bianco family – 'Well, how can you go against Gutzom Borglum's own words?' It clearly says in this July 30, 1935 letter, 'I have appointed Luigi Del Bianco chief carver.'"

Gladstone explains that the way credit for Mount Rushmore has been given recognizes Borglum as the government commissioned lead on the project, but basically everyone else who contributed was grouped together.

"There were 400 people who were working at Mount Rushmore from 1927 through 1941 – 399 men and one woman," Gladstone says. "And in the annals of history, they all receive the same historical recognition and credit, irrespective of their jobs."

Gladstone notes the differences in the types of work contributed by these individuals who all have received essentially equal credit on the project, which he does not find fair.

"Luigi Del Bianco would sit in a Bosun's chair, 600 feet up in the air," Gladstone says. "The hoist engineer or Gutzon Borglum's stenographer did not have their lives in peril by doing this type of work."

Del Bianco stands with studio models for Mount Rushmore of presidents Washington and Lincoln.
Credit Courtesy of the Del Bianco Family Collection

Just recently, the National Park Service has sort of corrected the omission of Del Bianco's status as chief carver on Mount Rushmore.

"This is the 75th anniversary of Mount Rushmore and it's being celebrated all year, so Mount Rushmore on its Facebook page has been putting little biographies of some of the workers," Gladstone says. "And there it was – simply said Luigi Del Bianco in the bio, was chief carver beginning in 1935."

Even though there was "not a lot of fanfare" Gladstone says, he does feel vindicated by this recognition of Del Bianco's role in the monument's creation.