A once-in-a-lifetime trip for dozens of Western New Yorkers turned sour Wednesday when they were denied entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.
The 91 travelers, mostly from the Southtowns, were able to catch just a passing glimpse from afar of the iconic monument that features the faces of four U.S. presidents carved into the side of the Black Hills.
“People were upset. We were looking forward to the trip, and Mount Rushmore was the main thing,” said Hilde Werneth of North Collins, who organized the trip through a national touring company. “People were disappointed, but what can you do? It’s beyond our control. People said, ‘Vote them out.’ ”
The entrance to the park, parking lots and highway pull-off areas where people usually are allowed to stop their vehicles for photographs of the monument all were blocked to any traffic, said Werneth.
“It’s all closed up,” she said. “They won’t even let you stop and take a picture. You can only drive by.”
The trip, which had been planned for about a year, consists mostly of senior citizens from North Collins, Eden, Hamburg, Boston and Angola. And there were many veterans traveling, as well. Some may not be able to return to the South Dakota landmark.
“They’ve been denied a celebration of American patriotism that we were all hoping to experience,” said Bonnie Noto of North Collins. “They’re ready to protest. I just cannot believe this is going on.”
For the Western New York tourists, not being able to see the monument sometimes referred to as a “shrine of democracy” turned out to be a symbol of government dysfunction.
“They’re blaming the government. Some people blame the Republicans and some people blame the Democrats, depending on what party they belong to,” said Werneth.
Noto said she was ready to “fire them all. Start all over again.”
Each traveler paid $702 for the tour. It includes stops at Crazy Horse memorial, the Borglum Historical Center, the historic town of Deadwood and other places, but Mount Rushmore was considered the highlight of the trip.
The Western New York group traveled 1,500 miles aboard two buses and arrived Monday in South Dakota. The group rearranged its itinerary to see Badlands National Park prior to the shutdown Tuesday.
“That was wonderful. Oh my gosh,” said Karen Denne, a trustee of the village of North Collins who took the trip with her husband, Ronald.
The tour of Badlands originally was scheduled for later in the week, so the contingent was grateful to squeeze it in before the federal shutdown.
The group had been holding out hope that Mount Rushmore would be opened under a deal between the state and federal governments.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard proposed Monday using state personnel to provide security inside the park and keep it open for visitors, but the National Park Service said it was not able to do that, according to a report in the Rapid City Journal.
The group was slated to begin traveling back east Friday and was unlikely to revisit Mount Rushmore even if it reopened before then.
Werneth said the buses took two passes on a highway along the perimeter of the park, which was jammed with other vehicles of tourists attempting a glance at the massive monument.
“It’s really something to see. I wasn’t too pleased, but I’m happy we could drive by and at least see it,” she said. “A picture doesn’t do it justice.”