“Never before… has the government moved to build a multi-million dollar school with thousands of students almost overnight in a handpicked area,” read a 1954 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Although earlier discussions occurred about the possibility of the U.S. Air Force building its academy in the Elsah area, it came as a shock to then-College President Morgan that the current campus, which included the Maybeck buildings, would become the central part of the plans.
Upon discovering that the St. Louis Chambers of Commerce intended to give up the Elsah location by power of eminent domain, Principia College and the surrounding community put up a fight. The Air Force Academy was later placed in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 24, 1954.
Some have heard the story that Principia College was almost the location of the U.S. Air Force Academy, instead of its current location of Colorado Springs. Why did officials, then, decide to build in Colorado Springs instead of in Elsah? How did Principia avoid this, since such high levels of power were involved? It turns out that the entire situation is more complicated than it seems.
Venturing into the College’s archives lent some perspective to the matter. An article in the July 1, 1954, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said that “the Post-Dispatch was told last week that a major factor in rejection of the… site was the receipt of about 2,200 telegrams from opponents. Many of these were sent by alumni or friends of Principia College at nearby Elsah, IL.” Besides the letter-writing, Principia also had valuable connections. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, was a close friend of Charlotte Prichard, the mother of a Principia alumna.
There was a clear, concerted effort from the Principia community to preserve the College. But how effective was it?
A June edition of the Alton Telegraph reported that that “the Alton area site for a United States Air Force Academy received a first choice vote from a majority of the academy selection board but had to be referred to Secretary of the Air Force, Harold M. Talbot, because the choice was not unanimous.” Talbot was a key player in the decisionmaking process, and his influence became the deciding factor. However, even after the final decision was made, it was unclear on what his exact motives were.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat revealed that Talbot told then-Congressman Melvin Price of Illinois the following regarding the Elsah location: “We had a very difficult problem with the topography of the land along the river. This was the main objection to this location, and after a thorough inspection by a group from the Air Force Staff as well as myself, we finally decided that the location should be in Colorado Springs.” It was also mentioned in the article “that protests were an important factor despite the fact the Secretary did not mention them. It is also said that Colorado Springs had a slight edge from the beginning.”
So why was there such a media fuss about the entire situation if the location was already biased towards Colorado Springs from the beginning? An Alton Evening Telegraph from July 24, 1954, postulated that maybe the entire situation was a publicity campaign for the Air Force’s new academy. Either way, it appears that the Principia community did have some sway in the decision, but it is unclear how much.