70 years: Los Alamos the Manhattan Project and the Hiroshima bombing

There are some moments that change the world forever. August 6, 2019 was one of them. At 8:15am Hiroshima time the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city. No one, including the men and women who created this weapon knew the destruction it would wreck. The bomb was designed by Manhattan Project scientists working in Los Alamos, New Mexico a short distance northwest of Santa Fe.

Seventy years later, Los Alamos is a tourist destination. While the Los Alamos National Laboratory is gated and off-limits, visitors can easily spend a day or part of one up on “The Hill” as it was called in the days when the site was so secret no one except those living and working there knew what was going on (and knowledge was shared on a need to know basis).

Pre-WWII history of Los Alamos

Visit Los Alamos? "Atomic City" about 45-minutes northwest of Santa Fe was the birthplace of the atomic bomb, Visit Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum,

Fuller Lodge the main house at the Boys Ranch School, photo/Billie Frank

Los Alamos, on the Pajarito Plateau high above the Rio Grande River and below the towering peaks of the Jemez Mountains, has been home to tribal peoples for thousands of years. There are even remains of an ancestral pueblo just behind Fuller Lodge, the original main building at the Los Alamos Ranch School. Spanish settlers ranched in the area for hundreds of years before Anglos arrived. The area was hard to access and living was hard.

In 1917, Ashley Pond, a former Rough Rider founded the Los Alamos Ranch School. Pond, who had come to New Mexico for his health when he was a young man, believed that a rigorous life lived in clean mountain air combined with a classical education would build strong men. Alumni of the boarding school included William S. Burroughs, Gore Vidal, and Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby. The school thrived for 25 years.

The Manhattan Project

Los Alamos Main Gate in the 1940s, courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos Main Gate in the 1940s, photo/courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

It was 1941, war was raging and there was fear that the Germans were close to an atomic bomb. Our of this chaos, the Manhattan Project was born. Enter J. Robert Oppenheimer. This well-respected physicist had discovered the Ranch School during wilderness horseback rides he took from Pecos, on the east side of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. In 1942 he was tapped as the scientific head of the Manhattan Project. This secret project needed a home that was a remote yet accessible. He remembered the school and suggested it as the location for the secret work. At Christmas 1942, the boys were told the school would be closing. They had until February to finish their year’s work. It was a sad time for those who loved the Los Alamos Ranch School.

Scientists from universities across the USA started arriving at the site in March, 1943. They were joined by a contingent of British scientists later that year.. There were also foreign refugees such as physicist Edward Teller onboard. Because the project was top secret those involved could not tell anyone where they were going. They didn’t even know what their final destination was until they reported to 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. They were processed at this vintage adobe and sent up “The Hill.” The town was so secret that everyone who lived there had the same address: PO Box 1663 Santa Fe. Almost overnight, Los Alamos became a small city. Many of the scientists brought their families; children were born there. All birth certificates listed “PO Box 1663 Sandoval County Rural” as place of birth. Los Alamos did not exist.

Los Alamos was a long and arduous drive from Santa Fe in those days. It took hours of traveling over steep and twisty dirt roads to the plateau. Travelers crossing the Otowi Bridge over the Rio Grande passed Edith Warner’s Tearoom. This quiet, beloved woman hosted many of the Manhattan Project people who came to eat dinner in here small adobe house. She was booked up often months in advance. Peggy Pond Church’s wonderful 1960 book The House at Otowi Bridge, tells Warner’s story. Church, Ashley Pond’s daughter, was married to a teacher at the Ranch School and lived there until the government took it over.

The bomb

The Trinity Site in Alamogordo NM where the first atomic bomb was tested in Juky 1945

McDonald ranch house where the test bomb was assembled in July 1945, photo/Neala McCarten Off Beat Travel

By July 1945, they finally had a bomb to test. On Thursday, July 12th the plutonium core was loaded into an army sedan and driven to Alamogordo to the Trinity Site in New Mexico in the barren Jornada del Muerto desert. The following day, Friday the 13th, the non-nuclear parts were transported to the site and assembled in the McDonald Ranch house. The bomb was ready on the evening of the 15th and hoisted to the top of the firing tower, 100 feet in the air. On Monday, July 16th at 5:30am the world’s first nuclear weapon, nicknamed “The Gadget” was detonated at the Trinity Site. Until it exploded, no one knew if it would really work or the force that it would display. The nuclear age was officially born.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6th, at 8:16am Hiroshima time, “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city from the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber.. The destruction caused by this bomb named for FDR, was unimaginable. On August 9th “Fat Man,” the bomb named for Winston Churchill was dropped over the city of Nagasaki. Hiroshima, John Hersey’s book about the bombing, was first run in the New Yorker Magazine August 31, 2019. It took over the magazine’s entire issue.

The Trinity nuclear test, July 16, 2019 Photo Jack Aeby of the Special Engineering Detachment, Manhattan Project, Los Alamos

The Trinity nuclear test, July 16, 2019 Photo Jack Aeby of the Special Engineering Detachment, Manhattan Project, Los Alamos

Post WWII

In January 1947 the Atomic Energy Commission took over the Los Alamos site. It became the Los Alamos National Laboratory and was run by the University of California, Berkeley until 2007 when the contract went to Los Alamos National Security (LANS) a joint venture of the University between UC, the Bechtel Corporation, The Babcock and Wilcox Company, and the URS Company. The city of Los Alamos was closed to the public until 1957. Access was for badge and pass holders only. You can still see an old guard post at the side of the road as you enter town.

Visit the Trinity Site

This obelisk at the Trinity Site in Alamogordo NM marks the site where the first atomic bomb was tested in Julky 1945

This obelisk marks the site of the tower the bomb was dropped from, , photo Neala McCarten Off Beat Travel

The Trinity Site was chosen from a list of eight sites in California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The Alamogordo location was perfect for the test. The former McDonald Ranch was part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, established in 1942, it was in a remote area, The Jornada del Muerto (dead man’s journey), and it was the closest of the sites considered to Los Alamos. Twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October, the Trinity Site is open to visitors from 8am to 3:30pm (gates close for admission at 2pm). The army’s website for Trinity warns that there is radiation at the site. Full information is here. If you go and want to stay overnight, book your hotel a few months in advance. The open houses attract a lot of people.

Want to learn more about Los Alamos the Manhattan Project and the Hiroshima bombing? Visit Los Alamos. We did; read our post about visiting Los Alamos the home of the Manhattan Project, and the place where the atomic bomb was born.

Thanks to Neala  McCarten of Off Beat Travel for the Trinity Site photos.

 

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12 Responses to “70 years: Los Alamos the Manhattan Project and the Hiroshima bombing”

  1. Nancie
    August 10, 2019 at 6:05 am #

    Interesting history! I’ve been to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I found my visits brought up a lot of emotions, and I left both places thinking how sad it is that countries are still producing or trying to produce nuclear bombs.

    It’s also the 70 anniversary of the Korean War. As you probably know, North Korea is still working on a nuclear bomb that will work. That’s a scary proposition, and especially for me living in Seoul!

    • Billie Frank
      August 10, 2019 at 6:47 am #

      I don’t know if I could visit either because of the emotional factor. It makes me sad thinking of both these places.

      For the USA this is the 65th anniversary of the Korean War which we entered in June of 1950. I find North Korea very frightening. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, North Korea does have nuclear weapons . I hope they’re wrong. They cite nine nations as having them.There’s an comedy show on HBO called Brink which is set in Pakistan and a la Dr. Strangelove satirizes the military mindset and the dangers of nuclear weapons. With both India and Pakistan it’s a bit daunting. When the USSR dismantled, I felt that the threat of nuclear was had diminished. Now we live under that threa again.

  2. Donna Janke
    August 10, 2019 at 8:11 am #

    Los Alamos would be a tough and emotional place to visit. Not sure I’d want to do that. Very sobering. Interesting history of the town that didn’t exist.

    • Billie Frank
      August 10, 2019 at 3:06 pm #

      I’m okay with it now, but it took me years to get up there and I only did it to be with the visiting family. It’s actually quite interesting to me now- and I keep getting more and more into the history. We watch the TV series Manhattan, which according to long-time Los Alamos is wildly inaccurate, and that gets us more curious about the city.

  3. Irene S. Levine
    August 10, 2019 at 6:19 pm #

    Great post! It’s so important to remember history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes~

  4. The GypsyNesters
    August 10, 2019 at 8:14 pm #

    It would be strange to visit Los Alamos having been to Nagasaki. Still, an interesting piece of history.

    • Billie Frank
      August 10, 2019 at 9:00 pm #

      It changed the world and I think for that reason remains significant.

  5. Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields
    August 12, 2019 at 4:30 am #

    We had read about Los Alamos before we visited Santa Fe a few years ago and were looking forward to visiting the site. Unfortunately the road to the town was closed as a result of bushfires and we couldn’t get through. It is top of our list for a return visit to that part of the world.

    • Billie Frank
      August 12, 2019 at 2:16 pm #

      Was it summer 2012? The Las Conchas fire got very close to Los Alamos. There were some evacuations. If you come back, let us know!

  6. Carol Colborn
    August 12, 2019 at 11:11 am #

    We were at Los Alamos in 2012 and were thrilled by the Bath Tub Row, where the elites of the Project lived and had bath tubs! But Trinity Site they said was open only two days a year so we were not able to see it! Thanks for this info.

    • Billie Frank
      August 12, 2019 at 2:17 pm #

      We hope to get to the Trinity site for the October open house. It’s really a madhouse because so many people want to get in and they have such limited access.

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