Oh good, you’re back!
My dad and Nick Clifford are just about the same age. They're both scrappy guys who were raised during the Great Depression, both gainfully employed by the time they were 17; my father enlisted and began a twenty-two year career with the Marine Corps; Nick Clifford was an ace pitcher and outfielder, a ringer for the Mount Rushmore Memorial Drillers for two years
until his persistence finally landed him a job helping to carve a piece of history.
Clifford did everything from cutting logs for sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s studio and cranking the winches (mechanical devices used to pull up or let out rope or cable) in the winch house to raising and lowering cables when he was first hired. He spent 3 years at Mount Rushmore working from 1938 until the dedication of the monument in 1941. His starting wage was 50 cents an hour. Eventually he was promoted to driller, which earned him an extra dollar a day.
“Mostly I drilled on Roosevelt’s face and a little on Lincoln,” Clifford offered when I spoke with him in the Gift Shop at Mount Rushmore.
He arrives most days at 8 a.m. to greet and talk shop with visitors such as myself and sign copies of his book, Mount Rushmore: Q & A.
Clifford grew up in Keystone in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, just 6 years old when the first of 400 workers total began blasting and chipping away under the direction of Gutzon Borglum at Six Grandfathers Mountain, the Lakota name for Mount Rushmore.
Workers numbered anywhere from 70 to as few as four; over the course of the 14 year project, when the money ran out or winter set in, the work often dried up. Thirty-five to forty of the workers lived permanently in Keystone and found jobs there during those dry spells, returning to the mountain when the money or weather was favorable. Clifford admits that without the dedication of these experienced locals, there would be no “mountain carving.”
“We knew it was important when we were working on it,” Clifford mentioned in his book, “but we had no idea how important. It was a great honor and we were happy to have a job back
Some, according to Clifford lasted a single day, the conditions more than they could handle.
“After one day of work they’d never come back,” Clifford said, acknowledging he’d never go up to the top now, but in his day, the height was not a problem for him. It’s the question visitors ask most frequently; "Was it scary up there?"
As a driller, Clifford would climb 746 steps to the top of the mountain before getting strapped into a metal and leather seat called a bonsun’s chair. He was then lowered down the face of the mountain where he spent the day drilling on an image he really couldn’t see. “Mostly, I drilled on Roosevelt’s face and a little on Lincoln’s. “
While Clifford and the remaining workers knew nothing of minimum wage, workers’ compensation, health or pension plans or unemployment, Borglum was a stickler for safety, demanding special safety equipment and strict guidelines all workers were required to follow. Borglum could be difficult to work with, but his record stands: there were few injuries and no fatalities despite the dynamite handled, despite the treacherous working conditions.
Clifford and many of the workers also played baseball “every day, rain or shine.” The Mount Rushmore Drillers won two consecutive state championships with Clifford pitching and playing outfield.
Clifford seemed happiest when he was autographing baseballs for sale in the Gift Shop at Mount Rushmore. I was happy to get the chance to meet Nick Clifford. His face, one of so many behind the four famous faces atop that mountain, is what helps make the history come alive.