Chopmist Hill and the United Nations

Chopmist Hill and the United Nations

The little hill with a worldwide reach.
by Barbara Sarkesian

Topo map of Chopmist Hill

"Chopmist Hill District is Rated One of Top Potential Locations for UNO Headquarters by Committee"—Providence Journal headline, January 24, 1946

Although each town's history contains much legend and lore, the story that Chopmist Hill was considered as the site for the United Nations headquarters—perhaps difficult to believe—is neither legend nor lore, but fact. Honest.

Shortly after the U.N. was formed in 1945, an inspection team was appointed to recommend a site for its headquarters. The seven-member team was composed of delegates from the United States, the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, China, France, Iraq, and the Soviet Union. The sites were narrowed down to (1) the New York district, which included sites within a twenty-five to eighty-mile radius of New York City, and (2) the Boston district.

This Boston district included anything within sixty miles of Boston, such as Plymouth, Lincoln, Sudbury, Marlboro, and the North Shore of Massachusetts. It also included the Portsmouth/Bristol area of Rhode Island. While acknowledging that the scenery in this latter area was "perfect," the delegation concluded that it was "a broken site" and too heavily populated.

Another part of the Boston district was the Chopmist Hill area of Scituate, which had been suggested to the U.N. by George Matteson, a Scituate forest ranger, mapmaker, and historian.

Traveling from England, the inspection team first met at the White House with President Truman. Then, as the official report states: "On January 23, 1946 we inspected two districts in Rhode Island was the Chopmist district, to the west of Providence... We also met with the governor of Rhode Island, John O. Pastore, and other officials..."

The delegation had certain criteria to consider in selecting a site:

  • Accessibility to the world at large
  • Adequate distance from the nearest cities, especially New York
  • Adequate supplies of water and electricity
  • Hotels, schools, universities
  • Recreational facilities
  • Outstanding physical setting
  • Good climate and atmospheric conditions
  • Possibilities of constructing a city
  • Minimum population displacement
  • Local officials agreeable to the tenets of the U.N. Constitution
  • No racial discrimination

Upon arriving at Chopmist Hill, the delegates were greeted by a typical Chopmist January day. As a newspaper account put it, rather poetically: "Under a clear winter sky the sleet remaining from Tuesday's storm glinted in the sunlight on apple trees and pine trees, like a vast array of rhinestones, as if the landscape had put on costume jewelry for its distinguished guests..."

Chopmist Hill Fire Tower, 2020.
The Chopmist Hill Fire Tower. This one was built in 1968. (June 14, 2020).

The delegates climbed the Chopmist Hill watch tower (altitude: 735 feet—now at the Chopmist Fire Station), the steps of which had been sanded because of the ice. There they examined the site from all directions. It covered a compact, fifty-square-mile area within Scituate, Foster, and Glocester:

Dr. Stoyan Gavilovic of Yugoslavia, the head of the delegation, was impressed. "This is a possible site," he told the team of reporters. "It meets most of the technical points."

Among those technical points were:

  • Rolling countryside and beautiful scenery
  • A wide belt of under-developed land
  • Ample room for a large, central building
  • Ample ground for an airport (to the west, on the Connecticut border)
  • A natural buffer provided by the Scituate Reservoir
  • $50 to $60 an acre for land
  • Approximately 1,000 people to displace, a relatively small and acceptable number
  • Twelve miles from the state airport; fourteen miles from Providence, fifty-four miles from Boston
  • Fine road conditions to Boston and Providence, and a proposed parkway to New York

These were all positive factors, but by far the most important factor in considering the Chopmist Hill site was the "hidden" one: A nearby World War II radio listening station.

Suddard House, 2002.
Suddard House is now a private residence. (May 25, 2002).

As part of the inspection tour, the delegates visited the fourteen-room Suddard house (c. 1895) set on 185 acres on Darby Road. Leased from the Suddard family by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in March 1941, the site served until the end of World War II as a radio monitoring system. Its mission had been to detect and intercept all enemy communications.

On the tour, led by the station's superintendent, Thomas Cave, the delegates saw radio receivers marked "Madrid," "Lisbon," etc., and listened as Cairo and the BBC came in clearly. The largest of a nationwide FCC network, the system was described by Cave as "the best location in the country for radio transmission and reception to any part of the world."

The complex included eleven highly sensitive antennae, 80,000 feet of wire, a power-generating station housed in a concrete blockhouse, and a six-foot barbed-wire fence, complete with floodlights and patrolled by armed guards.

Thirty-five to forty operators worked in six rooms at radio transmitters and receivers, twenty-four hours a day throughout World War II. Among their accomplishments:

  • Monitored German troop movements worldwide; e.g., Field Marshall Rommel's movements in North Africa. (It is said that 99% of all German transmissions were picked up at the monitoring station.)
  • Picked up and relayed to the British messages of German spies in South America.
  • Saved the Queen Mary from being sunk with 10,000 Allied troops on board.
  • Monitored Japanese messages and helped stop attempts to bomb the United States with TNT-loaded hot air balloons.

The monitoring results of the station were so spectacular that the word in the intelligence community was: "We want it from Scituate. We don't want it from anyplace but Scituate."

And what about the townsfolk during these years? By all accounts, many knew something was taking place on the old Suddard property, but they didn't know what exactly.

Unsurprisingly, the U.N. delegation had a highly favorable impression of the monitoring system in particular, and the Chopmist area in general.

Retired U.S. Senator John O. Pastore, who was governor of Rhode Island at the time of the visit, told this writer in 1989: "I formed a committee, headed by John Nicholas Brown, to present our case. It was a serious effort... The delegation was very polite and complimentary. They toured the Portsmouth/Bristol area and Chopmist Hill. We presented our case as best we could, especially our location between Boston and New York. But I guess we weren't big enough for them... Then, of course, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., came up with the money for the New York site."

(On December 14, 1946, the U.N. General Assembly accepted $8.5 million ($101,705,920 in 2014 dollars) from John Rockefeller to purchase a sixteen-acre site on the East River in New York City.)

As for the Suddard/Darby Road/FCC site, it was bought in 1968 by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Leeder from the R.I. Civil Preparedness Division. Mr. Leeder found antennae in the woods, telephone cables, a blockhouse, floors with asphalt tile over hardwood, maps on the walls, red and green outlets, and piles of wire and cable. He conducted extensive research on the house and, most significantly, was told by the Imperial War Museum in Bonn, West Germany, that "Chopmist Hill won the war for the Allies."

However, Mr. Leeder was not successful in getting the site put on the National Register of Historic Places. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission noted that the site did not meet the criteria of integrity and age (at the time of the application the site was not yet fifty years old.) The Commission suggested that the site be marked instead with a plaque. Mr. Leeder then asked if the site was not the "right kind" of history, or if its "Classified" designation until the year 2046 was a factor.

In 1986, in response to this writer's inquiry to the Commission, Antoinette Downing, chairman, wrote: "the Darby House/FCC site has a fascinating history as a component of the United States' defense between 1941 and 1945. There appears to be little doubt that the site played a significant role in local and national history. However, one of the criteria of the National Register is that the site retain substantial integrity—that is, the present appearance must conform to its appearance during its significant period. Since little of the FCC's equipment remains at the property, the review board concluded that the property was not eligible...".

In any case, with or without the National Register designation, one must agree that this site is an important piece of Scituate history.

And about Chopmist Hill becoming the site of the U.N. headquarters: Isn't it intriguing to ponder the question—what if?

Barbara Sarkesian was the Scituate town historian and ran the Trimtown Lyceum, an exhibition and teaching space located in an early nineteenth century rural Rhode Island farmhouse. She passed away on January 20, 2007.

A visit to Suddard House
by Christopher Martin

On a beautiful day in late May 2002, I took a ride out to Scituate, hoping to take some photos to go along with Barbara Sarkesian's article on Chopmist Hill and the United Nations. I knew that the watch tower from which the inspectors had surveyed the countryside no longer existed, and that Suddard House, the site of the old World War II listening post, was now a private residence, but I was game to try to get something.

I took a few pictures of the Chopmist Hill Fire Station, built on the approximate site of the old watch tower, and then went in search of Suddard House. I didn't have a house number, only the street name—Darby Road. Darby winds through the trees on the east side of Chopmist Hill between Route 6 and Central Pike. Most of the homes are pretty new (in fact, as I later learned, those around Suddard House had only been built within the past two years), and Suddard House was fairly easy to pick out by its Victorian architecture and its sturdy old stone wall.

Suddard House, 2002.
Farmhouse, military listening post, suburban home—Suddard House. (May 25, 2002).

I parked the car and got out, intending to take just one or two shots looking up the front walk. As I exited the car I heard the sound of a power tool. A glance up the driveway showed that someone was working on the west side of the house. I hesitated, not wanting to disturb anyone, then decided to go introduce myself.

As I made my way up the driveway, I could see that the worker was a woman. I forget what she was doing, exactly; she may have been stripping paint from the side of the house, or she could have been vacuuming up paint flakes that had already been stripped. When she saw me, she turned off her machine and came to greet me.

I explained who I was and what I was doing. She introduced herself as the owner of the house. She and her husband had purchased it a few years before, and they were slowly renovating it. She gave me permission to take photographs of the exterior of the house and helpfully pointed out some remnants of its days as a listening post.

Wooden antenna pole, 2002.
One of the several poles that still lean crazily around the Suddard property. Wired together they formed a powerful antenna network that could pick up messages from the other side of the world. (May 25, 2002).

A few telephone poles still remain on the property, and the homeowner told me that her husband sometimes runs over the stumps of others with the lawnmower. The few that are standing are very short for telephone poles, but presumably they needed to be so that they would not easily be seen from the road. There are also a few old wooden fences, slowly succumbing to the creep of nature.

Blockhouse, 2002.
The blockhouse. Was it really used as a generator shed? Or might it have been... a torture chamber? These walls aren't talking. (May 25, 2002).

The Suddard farm originally covered 185 acres, but in recent years the property was subdivided. On an adjoining neighbor's property, there are the remains of an old cinderblock generator building, still surrounded with rusting chain link fencing and barbed wire. The floor is covered with thick green asphalt tiles.

As for the house itself, in the course of renovating, the couple found little evidence of the farmhouse's war-time service. Some rooms do have dozens of outlets; others have none. The original wrought-iron front gate, still adorned with government admonitions against trespassing, may be in the hands of a neighbor. And there is evidence that the entire house was at one time painted the same color of institutional green, both inside and out (the woman showed me a sample of the paint inside a first-floor closet). Otherwise, the previous owners—the Leeders—had already during the 1970s erased much of the Army's modifications, covering the Army's green with then-fashionable harvest gold, burnt orange, and avocado green, much to the dismay of the current owners.

Floor of the blockhouse, 2002.
The military covered the floors of Suddard House with asphalt tiles like these that can still be seen in the blockhouse. (May 25, 2002).

The homeowner told me how, when the house just to her east was built, contractors first had to excavate an old foundation that had been filled in with asphalt tile of the same sort that can still be seen in the generator building. She thinks it must have been taken up from the floors of Suddard House during the previous owner's renovations and dumped in the most convenient spot.

The state took over the property after the Army left, and the current owners have even found signs from that era during their renovations. Just to the west of the house stands a blockhouse smothered in ivy. Some time after purchasing Suddard House, they finally got around to opening it. Inside they found stacks of boxes of medical records from a nearby hospital (nothing like leaving sensitive medical information sitting around on a private citizen's property). The couple contacted the proper authorities, who expressed surprise at the find, and a truck came and hauled the records away.

Every year a third-grade class from Foster takes a field trip out to Suddard House, where they learn about the property's role in gathering military intelligence during World War II. In 2002, it just happened that the homeowner's son was in that third-grade class. I thought that would be pretty weird, taking a field trip to your own home, but I met him and he seemed proud to live in such an important house.

In addition to the Foster third grade, Suddard House receives one or two other visitors a year. Most are people like me, interested in local or military history. A few months before I came by, the house was visited by a man with a more personal connection—he traveled all the way from South Carolina to revisit the site where he had been stationed during the war.

If the exterior is anything to judge by, the new owners are doing right by Suddard House, restoring it as much as possible to its pre-war appearance. While Mr. Leeder never succeeded in getting a plaque or a National Register designation for the house, it's good to know it will continue to be a home.

Related Links
Small State, Big History
New England Historical Society

December 4, 2022: Abandoned from Above by Jason Allard:

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