Alton is witness to a unique and unusual past. Known to most for its connection to the Civil War, the world's tallest man and haunted buildings, it once had the potential to play a prominent role in the Cold War and beyond. Just after the Air Force was established as its own branch of the nation's military forces in 1947, the Eisenhower Administration decided it needed its own educational facility to train officers.
The Air Force Academy Site Selection Board, which included Brigadier General Charles A. Lindbergh, was charged with finding a suitable site. Several hundred locations were whittled down to three, and the Greater Alton Area found itself on that very short list, which also included Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and Colorado Springs, Colo.
The proposed boundaries for the academy here lay just north of Alton, extending from the Mississippi River in the South to Highway 100 (Route 3 now) in the North, and East to West along roads extending from Highway 100 to the river. Parts of Grafton and Elsah would have been taken as well as all of Chautauqua. The academy's curriculum would have been designed for officer training, so very little instructional flying would have been done on site or in the area. Air training would have taken place at other bases. The selection committee visited the site in April 1954. In several cars, they drove from the Greater Alton Association of Commerce with their hosts, and despite stormy weather, dozens gathered to catch a glimpse of the visitors, especially Lindbergh.
Mixed reaction among surrounding communities concerning the potential base ranged from obvious excitement to the fear of potential displacement. Local municipalities and businesses took to promoting the area's outstanding citizens and promise of success, while those opposed to the academy sent disapproving telegrams to Washington, D.C. The Greater Alton Area offered the Mississippi River, a central location for the academy, and access to many other top-flight universities, however Colorado Springs held more advantages. It was still somewhat remote, mountainous and had housed military instillations since World War II. The city had also been working with the Air Force since its inception, and it earned the Site Selection Board's nomination in June 1954.
Colorado Springs' population tripled and continued to grow since then, and Alton's began to decline. What could have been a boon for the area was not to be. We do, however, have room to grow with new ventures and upgraded potentials on the rise, despite the fact that our past may be as haunted as our buildings.