Los Alamos:  The Secret City

Several years ago I wrote the post Familiar and Family Ground about our visit to Hanford,  Washington.  My grandfathers worked at Hanford to develop plutonium during WWII.  Hanford is one of three sites in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.  We recently visited a second site in the historical park, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In 1942 President Roosevelt received a letter from Albert Einstein alerting him that German scientists were likely developing an atomic style weapon.  Roosevelt authorized a fast track project to develop one in the U.S.   That effort was named the Manhattan Project.


General Leslie Groves (right) was the Commanding General of the Manhattan Project. He chose physicist Robert Oppenheimer to lead the Los Alamos Laboratory.

Groves established isolated sites to develop uranium (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) and  Plutonium (Hanford, Washington).  He also needed a secret site to gather scientists, engineers and technicians to design and build an atomic weapon before the Nazis.

fullsizeoutput_54c9The site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, an exclusive boys boarding school located in the New Mexico wilderness was chosen for the lab.  The area was remote enough to be secretive and had usable buildings.  In late 1942, the school was given notice to vacate and area homesteads were purchased as a buffer zone.  


Homesteaders were bought out and told to leave.  Many years later, this cabin was moved off a homestead and onto the site of the Manhattan Project Historical Park in Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer began recruiting scientists and the first group moved on site in March 1943.  European scientists fleeing the Nazis and a contingent of British scientists joined the effort.   At Groves’ insistence information was compartmentalized even among the scientists.  At Oppenheimer’s insistence they were allowed one collaborative meeting per week. 

fullsizeoutput_54f5People joining the Manhattan Project checked in at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe.  (Still there but now a chocolate shop.) From there they got assistance getting “up the hill” to the project site. The only road in was precarious.


fullsizeoutput_54ceThere was no town of Los Alamos, only the lab.  There were former school buildings and hastily built support facilities. Security was tight and no one could enter the grounds without passing through one of two security gates.  

fullsizeoutput_54ccThe make-shift Army post was not meant to be permanent and wasn’t designed for comfort.  Water shortages, electrical outages and cramped quarters were common.  Barely adequate housing was built as quickly as possible for singles, couples and families, assignment based on job and family size.


Hiring a 6000 person workforce was challenging during war time with so many Americans employed elsewhere in the war effort.  (Many wives joined the Los Alamos effort.)  Also challenging was the remote and secret location separating them from family and friends on the outside.   The perks were the scenery and outdoor recreation, the community they formed, and the knowledge they were doing a critical job for the war effort.

Military police screened mail and phone calls to avoid information leaving Los Alamos. Even with protocols in place it was later discovered that three separate informants gave information to the Soviet Union.

Scientists had to solve daunting problems and success was never certain. They only knew the stakes for the world were very high. Enrico Fermi, American physicist from Italy, had only recently developed a man-made, self sustaining, nuclear chain reaction.   The lab scientists were targeting two fuels (uranium and plutonium) and two ignition systems (gun style and implosion) and no one knew if any of it would really work.

The scientists, engineers and tens of thousands of workers at Oak Ridge and Hanford (my grandparents included) were able to produce small amounts of uranium and plutonium by the spring of 1945. Scientists at Los Alamos were sure the gun-style uranium bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, would work but far less certain of the plutonium implosion bomb design named Fat Man.  It needed testing.

fullsizeoutput_54c7A plutonium implosion bomb was successfully detonated 200 miles away near Alamegordo at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945.  It was called the Trinity Test.

P1050756The flash was so bright that it was visible to wives watching for “something” through the windows of a home on Bathtub Row at Los Alamos. (Bathtub Row houses were former faculty homes at the boys school, then given to the most important scientists, and were the only houses nice enough to have bathtubs.)


August 6, 1945, Little Boy, named for Franklin Roosevelt, was dropped over Hiroshima.


Three days following, Fat Man, nicknamed for Winston Churchill, was dropped over Nagasaki.

Manhattan Project work continued at Los Alamos until 1946 when most involved in the project moved on.  In 1947, the Army gave control of Los Alamos to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission and the site operated in limbo until the Soviet Union detonated their own bomb in 1949.  The Cold War commenced and Los Alamos had a prominent role in nuclear research and development.

Housing and infrastructure were improved and Los Alamos became permanent. The security fences came down in 1957.  Entrance gates and twenty four hour security discontinued as well.  Only specific lab facilities stayed secure.


Government houses were sold to private ownership between 1962 and 1966.  This home likely sold for $7000.

fullsizeoutput_54caPublic buildings were offered for private ownership or given to the county.  The log portion of this building was the dining hall at Los Alamos Ranch School with the side wings added during  government days.  It is now the Los Alamos Cultural Center for community and special events.

Los Alamos became a prosperous town worthy of attracting top scientists and engineers.  The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory became internationally known.  U.S. nuclear weapons were developed and stockpiled under its direction.  Peace was maintained through nuclear detente until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

fullsizeoutput_54d5Past and current lab employees have earned a number of Nobel prizes (right).  This Nobel Prize  in Physics was awarded to employee Fred Reines for his discovery of a subatomic particle, the neutrino, while at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.   Employed between 1944 and 1959, Reines believed he worked with the greatest collection of scientific talent ever assembled.


Some of the current lab buildings as viewed from above.

The current Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory is home to the greatest number of PhDs in one place in the world.   Their role has expanded way beyond nuclear defense to include space, medicine, environment and most world concerns.

When the Manhattan Project Historical Park was established in 2015, a collection of former laboratory and utilized town sites were identified.  Some are public and accessible and some are privately owned.


We went into a Bathtub Row home that was gifted to the Los Alamos Historical Museum.  It displays the Cold War Collection.


Inside we met a docent who had been a Lab Electrical Engineer for 30 years and now shares his knowledge and time through the museum.

We had a very interesting day at the Manhattan Project Historical Park Los Alamos site and are very motivated to visit the third site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee!


About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
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3 Responses to Los Alamos:  The Secret City

  1. Mark P McClelland says:

    Some amazing history there. I love the menu of housing choices. The “Expandable Trailer” looks pretty good!

  2. Teri McClelland says:

    It does look like a very interesting day. Yall are going to some great places.

  3. Janice says:

    I’ve said it before…I truly enjoy reading all your blogs. They are so interesting and so very informative.

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