After a two-week closure, Mount Rushmore National Memorial opened to the public on Monday and visitors said it didn’t come a moment too soon.
They started to arrive even before the visitors center and gift shop were open at 8 a.m., strolling up with umbrellas and cameras and anticipation from the parking lots below.
The opening of Mount Rushmore National Memorial after a closure tied to the partial federal shutdown attracted visitors from across the world, including Melbourne, Australia resident Rueben Larson.
Larson has been visiting relatives in southeastern South Dakota. He came with his uncle to spend some time in the Black Hills and to make his first visit to Mount Rushmore. Because of the closure, it took a while.
“We drove past it two or three times in the last couple of days," Larson said. “But unfortunately the park's been closed so we couldn't get up close and have a good look at the magnificent sculpture up on the mount."
Getting close is essential at Mount Rushmore. It’s a national icon with international appeal that attracts millions of visitors a year, to say nothing of its magnified impact on the regional economy.
So South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard worked with federal officials to re-open the memorial. An agreement reached last week will use donated funds to pay the $15,200 daily cost to keep the park open, at least for now.
The state secured private sponsors each willing to contribute $15,000 for a day; that will keep the memorial open for 17 days, if needed. The state will cover the $200 each day beyond the private donations. State officials also are looking for other sponsors in case the federal-government shutdown is prolonged and more funding is needed.
Meanwhile, however, the memorial is again a place to go and look for people with a patriotic, artistic or historical interest. The end, at least temporarily, of the closure came as great news to visitors and memorial staff.
“We're really thrilled to be here," public information officer Maureen McGee-Ballinger said. "Everybody on staff is thrilled to be here and be open today. It's exciting to have the visitors back and have people enjoy this sculpture once again."
Most of the memorial's 60 employees were on the job Monday. Twenty-three workers were considered essential for security and maintenance during the closure.
Some visitors to Mount Rushmore Monday said they had been in the Black Hills for days, hoping to an end to the closure and a chance to see the four famous faces in granite.
First-timers like Larson came away impressed.
“It's amazing. It's a lot bigger than I thought," Larson said. "I actually thought it was smaller than I thought. Then we got up close and took the trail to the base of the mountain. It's really quite impressive. It's really big."
It’s big, and it’s open – as long as the funding holds out.