Atomic New Mexico: Exploring the origins of America’s radioactive history

Monday, June 25, 2018 8:26 PM
The fence near the dirt path to Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range, the site of the first atomic bomb test, has plenty of warning signs. According to information provided at the site, a one-hour visit at ground zero exposes a person to one-half to one millirem of radiation. The average American is exposed to 620 millirems annually from natural and medical sources of radiation.
On July 6, 1945, scientists and workers prepare to raise the world’s first atomic bomb onto a 100-foot tower at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico. The detonation of this bomb occurred on July 16, 1945.
An aerial view of the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico after the first atomic explosion, which occurred on July 16, 1945. Ground zero is today a flat spot in the New Mexico desert, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
The heat of the blast melted the sand into a green, glassy substance called Trinitite. It covered much of the depression made by the explosion. In 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission led an effort to scrape up and bury the Trinitite, but tiny bits of the radioactive glass can sometimes be seen at the site. The first open house at the site was held in September 1953.
The McDonald Ranch house was built in 1913 by Franz Schmidt, a German immigrant. It was abandoned in 1942 when the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range took the land for training World War II bomb crews. Manhattan Project support personnel used the empty house for assembly of the bomb. Initial restoration efforts began in 1982.
A temporary open house sign is weighed down on a structure that covers a portion of the crater that was created by the test explosion of a plutonium bomb on July 16, 1945. Most of the Trinitite, sand melted into radioactive greenish glass, was scraped from the site in 1952 and buried. Ground zero is today a flat spot in the New Mexico desert, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Traffic on New Mexico Highway 525 about 9:30 a.m. April 7 is backed up from the Stallion Gate access to the Trinity Site. It took about an hour to reach the gate in the traffic jam. After checking personal IDs and car registration, the military personnel at the gate allowed vehicles through in small groups to ease the drive and entry to the parking lot near the Trinity Site. No photographs are allowed at the gate or on the drive to the parking lot.

In December 1942, Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered the director of the remote Los Alamos Ranch School in northern New Mexico to shut down the elite school.

Stimson wrote in a letter that the land was being acquired by the U.S. government for “military purposes.” But school officials were forbidden from saying why the school closed on Feb. 8, 1943, and all records of the condemnation proceedings were sealed.

That was among many secrets that would soon shroud a town on the Pajarito Plateau about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

The secretive history is one of the things that today draws people to Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed and where Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to operate as one of the nation’s premier scientific laboratories. The town uses the cachet of “Secret City” and “Atomic City” in its efforts to attract tourists.

There’s plenty to fill a long weekend in Los Alamos and its surroundings alone, but if you pick one of two weekends each year, you can delve a little deeper into New Mexico’s atomic history by driving about 200 miles south.

For 7½ hours on the first Saturday in October and the first Saturday in April, the U.S. Army hosts an open house at Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. You’ll find a few temporary information tables, about a dozen historical photographs hanging on the chain-link fence surrounding the site, a place to get a National Park passport stamp or souvenirs, a food truck and the requisite portable toilets.

You can stand in line for a selfie or group shot at the ground-zero obelisk (built in 1965) – and if you’re patient enough you might get a shot of it by itself.

There’s a shuttle bus to take visitors to the McDonald Ranch house, where the plutonium core of the bomb was assembled.

And that’s it.

On July 16, 1945, the mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion rises from Trinity Test Site, New Mexico. An open house at the site is offered twice a year – one in April and one in October. The next opportunity to visit the Trinity Site is Oct. 6.
Associated Press file

The rest, as you stand in the barren desert and scan the distant mountains, is left to your imagination and your recall of the history of the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the Atomic Age. The nerdier historical aspect is what drew my daughter and myself to visit the site on April 7 and combine it with a visit to Los Alamos a day later for an “atomic New Mexico” tour. It was more pilgrimage than “bucket list” travel for us, a history teacher who has visited Hiroshima and a former reporter who for years covered the U.S. military.

Whatever the reason, it’s a worthy and scenic long-weekend trip from Durango that can be extended a day or two to include hiking or biking, local history and art museums and exquisite dining in Santa Fe.

The next opportunity to visit the Trinity Site is Oct. 6, when the Stallion Gate near Socorro, New Mexico, is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the open house. And it’s none too soon to reserve a hotel in Socorro (the nearest town) as they tend to fill up on open house weekends.

Our tripWe drove from Colorado Springs to Socorro on Friday, arriving in plenty of time to check into the hotel and relax a bit before dinner at the Sourdough Mine Restaurant, where we had a yummy plate of ribs and brews from New Mexico’s Sierra Blanca Brewing Co.

After reading all the information and watching videos on the Trinity Site website, we decided to head out around 9 a.m. to miss the anticipated backup at the gate when it opened at 8 a.m. I think 10 a.m. would’ve been better. The first 35 miles were a breeze, but then we hit the lane of cars inching forward to get through the gate. That took about an hour. Once through security, it was a smooth 15 to 20 minute drive to the parking lot.

You can also access the site with a caravan that makes a 145-mile round-trip from Tularosa, New Mexico, but you must be on their schedule.

An obelisk to mark ground zero was erected in 1963 and is a popular spot for visitors to take photographs during the twice-a-year open houses at Trinity Site, which is on the northern part of the still-active White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The April 7 open house attracted a steady stream of visitors who waited patiently for their turn.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

Just remember, you’re on a military base, the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, and subject to all the rules that go with that. Our car registration and drivers’ licenses were checked, but that was it for us. They can search vehicles at will and weapons, alcohol and drugs are forbidden. All the details are on the website, so there’s no reason for surprises.

Two hours at the site was enough for plenty of contemplation time and a visit to the McDonald Ranch. The shuttles run routinely throughout the day so there’s little waiting.

It was unseasonably warm and dry that day with temperatures in the 80s. The Army advises visitors to come prepared for all kinds of weather, and we were glad for our water, hats and sunscreen, and the picnic cooler with refreshing fruit, veggies and cheese for the drive back out of the desert and north toward Los Alamos.

Shortly after leaving the base, we stopped to talk with protesters – “downwinders” – who had set up an information tent about the dangers the atomic testing had created for the community. They said that they always come out on open house days to provide their story to the visiting public.

We chose to spend Saturday night near Santa Fe, where there was more choice of hotels and restaurants. But we never made it to The Plaza, as we discovered Jambo Café in a strip mall not far from our hotel. The highly rated African restaurant deserves all the praise it gets online.

Los AlamosWe headed to Los Alamos early Sunday and arrived at the locally-operated Los Alamos History Museum as it opened at 9 a.m. We had time to see that museum, do the historic walking tour and have a picnic lunch at Ashley Pond before the Bradbury Science Museum opened at 1 p.m.

The old guard house at the east entrance to Los Alamos, on New Mexico Highway 502, is a popular photo stop for visitors to the once “Secret City.” Many of those who worked on the Manhattan Project had no idea its aim was to develop an atomic bomb, but they knew it was a secretive military project as they were not allowed to tell friends and family where they were living.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

At the local museum, we learned more about what life was like in the Secret City, where for more than two years, no one could say anything about Los Alamos, known in the region as “The Hill.” People who worked there weren’t allowed to tell their family where they were, and many had no idea what super-secret project they were supporting. Mail was routed through a single post office box in Santa Fe and was heavily censored.

It was Project Y of the Manhattan Project, a military effort to design and build an atomic bomb before Germany did. Site X was the uranium processing plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Site W was the plutonium development plant at Hanford, Washington. The three sites today are part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The walking tour includes Bathtub Row, so named because they were the only houses that had bathtubs during the war years. They were inhabited by scientists, including Robert Oppenheimer.

Our final stop on the atomic tour was the Los Alamos National Laboratories’ Bradbury Science Museum, which offers detailed history of the Manhattan Project activity in Los Alamos, as well as displays about current research efforts in such areas as nanotechnology, biofuels and space science. There is even a small display dedicated to opposing views on continued development of weapons and their use, and a place for the public to write their thoughts about such scientific research.

Plenty to contemplate on the drive home, too.

Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.

If you go

Videos and detailed information about the Trinity Site open houses: Science Museum has free admission. Alamos History Museum, admission $5. Project National Historical Park: