John D. Rockefeller Saved the Black Hills from the United Nations
June 1, 2020

Yup, John D. is the reason that the Black Hills are still here. But first, a couple trips back a bit in history.

The League of Nations was the first worldwide intergovernmental organization whose stated principal mission was to maintain world peace. It was founded on January 10, 1920 following the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as the leading architect of the League. 

Unfortunately, the League only became a politicized debate society and failed miserably in its intended goal as evident with World War II.

After the treaties ending World War II, the forty-six nations which had declared war on Germany and Japan, and had subscribed to the United Nations Declaration, were invited to the San Francisco Conference to formalize the future of the United Nations.

Delegates of fifty nations in all, being the representatives of over eighty percent of the world's population, representing every race, religion and continent, gathered in the City of the Golden Gate, to set up an organization which would preserve peace and help build a better world.

There were 850 delegates, plus their advisers and staff, together with the conference secretariat, bringing the total to 3,500 people. In addition, there were more than 2,500 press, radio and newsreel representatives and observers from many societies and organizations. In all, the San Francisco Conference was perhaps the largest international political gathering ever to take place.

One of the first business items was to find, and agree on, a location for building a new home. Some primary priorities were that the new headquarters not be in a major city but located in a tranquil, “peaceful” area, and not be set in an easily harassed/attacked location such as near a sea coast.

On October 24, 1945, the homeless United Nations began a world search for its permanent headquarters and no plan for the new headquarters was bolder than that of the Black Hills.

World War II came to Paul Bellamy, a Rapid City businessman, in September 1944 when he learned his 22-year-old son, piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress, had died over England days earlier. 

When Bellamy later learned that the United Nations, organized for world peace, was searching for a place for the new headquarters, in honor of his son’s memory, he threw himself into the quest to make the remote Black Hills of South Dakota the political center of the world. 

Many locations around the world were also suggested. In her book “Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations,” Charlene Mires identified 248 localities that vied in varying degrees to host the international organization’s headquarters; major cities and remote locales.

Among the advantages that Bellamy touted for the Black Hills, recent home of another improbable project located at Mount Rushmore, was the Black Hills’ central location on the North American continent, calling it America Center. In November 1945, the Black Hills group released a plan for its proposed United Nations headquarters that looked as if an enormous extraterrestrial community had landed in the shadows of South Dakota’s craggy buttes. Indeed, the design drawn by architect Luvine Berg (1891-1970) boasted that it was “so colossal a place that it may well accommodate the capital of Jupiter.”

The heart of his ambitious plan was a massive ‘dome within a dome’ capitol building featuring 1 million square feet of office space, an auditorium that could seat 20,000 people and a soaring tower topped by a globe as a symbol of the international organization. On a series of concentric roads were the embassies of the nations, designed to reflect the unique architecture of each country. The surrounding mountains and valleys were to be used to build little village retreats for each nation.

Bellamy flew to war-torn London in December 1945 to make his case directly to the United Nations preparatory commission. He presented Berg’s plan and South Dakota state’s offer of 100 square miles of tax-free land. He touted the benefits of his location, the scenic beauty of the surrounding mountains, and even the unparalleled quality of the region’s steak dinners.

Edward R. Murrow, CBS News, was quoted saying “Maybe people would think clearer and straighter in the Black Hills than anyplace else.” (South Dakota Magazine, Nov., 1986)

A June 1945 issue of the Custer County Chronicle wrote, “It was thought that progress was being made toward bringing the Black Hills into a position where it would be considered along with other sites when a decision was finally reached regarding the permanent location of the world capitol.”

Within weeks, the commission decided not to make its home in South Dakota. Making an abrupt about face, the committee chose a large, major world city when millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. surprisingly offered a gift of six blocks of expensive Manhattan real estate along the East River in December 1946 – the committee found the UN’s new home.

The Black Hills were saved. The beautiful valley proposed to become the location of this huge world metropolis is now the quiet homes, campgrounds, national forests and Custer State Park along America Center Road just east of Custer City.

The ‘What If’ questions boggle the mind; would the U.S. have ended up with Mt Rushmore or the vast gold of Lead & Deadwood; Where would the megacity get the water; Would the vast caves be used as repositories for the world’s records and treasures or as depositories for the world city’s sewage; Would majestic peaks be removed to fill scenic valleys to road projects?

Thank you, John D.!

[Christopher Klein, October, 2014 Philip, SD, written by Joy Keve Hauk
[Credit: the University of South Dakota excerpts
[Custer County Chronicle excerpts

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