The Secret City

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North America » United States » New Mexico » Los Alamos
October 26th 2011
Published: November 22nd 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Hiroshima pocket watchHiroshima pocket watchHiroshima pocket watch

Watch from Hiroshima, with the hands frozen at the time the first atomic bomb exploded.
Today, I need to find something to do.

I had planned to go to Chaco Canyon today, but had to postpone (again!) due to rain.

My plan after Chaco Canyon was to visit Santa Fe, so that’s where I ultimately headed.

Coronado State Monument

Heading north, I pulled off the road for the one thing I had to skip my previous time in Albuquerque.

A road on the outskirts of the city heads to a state historic site, Coronado State Monument.

People seeking the beauty spots of ancestral pueblos pass it by, but for those who want history it holds something unique.

The site sits on the banks of the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque.

It is yet another historic site with a misleading name; early archeologists thought Coronado camped near here.

What they actually found was one of the last pueblos to be abandoned in New Mexico.

Unlike the ancient pueblos further west made of rocks, this one was made of adobe, bricks of dried mud.

Adobe disintegrates over time when exposed to air, so the only reason the pueblo survived was being buried.
Rocky Mountains!Rocky Mountains!Rocky Mountains!

The interstate heads to the Sange de Christo range, the southernmost portion of the Rocky Mountains

Researchers reburied it after excavation to ensure it would be protected.

While excavating the pueblo they found something even more precious, an intact kiva.

The kiva had stucco paintings along the walls, highly faded but still visible.

The paintings are now preserved in the visitor’s center, along with artifacts found during the dig.

They are the only authentic kiva paintings visible to the general public.

Since the murals are sacred, the site prohibits photographs.

The artwork features highly simplified forms of humans, birds, and corn found in current pueblo art, including the church in Acoma .

A few figures represent large rabbits, a sacred animal in many pueblos’ religion.

Pueblo Indians see a rabbit in the patterns on the moon instead of a man like most Europeans.

Blue dashed lines run from many figures to the ground, life giving rain.

Anthropologists believe the human like figures in the murals are kachinas, but can’t confirm this.

Behind the center sits a recreation of the pueblo on top of the mound covering the actual one, which was built in the 1920s.
Fuller HallFuller HallFuller Hall

Central building for the Los Alamos Ranch School turned community hall during the Manhattan Project

They layout is a square rather than the semi-circle seen at sites like Aztec , otherwise it is very familiar by this point.

The highlight is a reconstruction of the kiva, including copies of the murals.

People must enter through a hole in the ceiling by a ladder, just like the original.

The room is square instead of the round kivas found elsewhere, and lacks the air vent.

It’s still small and dark, though.

After the pueblo, I pushed on north.

The road runs along flat desert, with a mountain range to the east.

Its official name is the Ortiz Mountains, but everyone calls it the turquoise trail.

These mountains sat on one of the largest known deposits of turquoise, which ancestral puebloans once mined and traded.

All at once the highway crests a rise and tall mountains appear beyond.

They are the Sangre de Cristo range, the southernmost part of the Rocky Mountains.

The highway heads right to the base, where it enters the sprawl of Santa Fe.

Most travelers have a specific image of Santa Fe.

They picture one of
Ranch School MemorbeliaRanch School MemorbeliaRanch School Memorbelia

Items from the Los Alamos Ranch School, which became Los Alamos lab
America’s ultimate boutique cities, a world of art galleries, fine restaurants, and spas surrounded by architecture that hasn’t changed in four centuries.

This world does exist, but it’s actually a modern recreation.

Outside the downtown core, Santa Fe is surrounded by the downright ugly sprawl typical of most modern cities in the west, albeit sprawl surrounded by photogenic mountain scenery.

I need several days to see Santa Fe properly, so I pushed through and headed north.

Soon enough, I was in desert mountains.

After a stretch of dry mountain valleys, the road split.

I took the left branch and headed for the closest hills.

That led to a narrow canyon into a mesa.

Finally, the road twisted up the side of the canyon to the mesa top.

Sadly, this was the point where the forecast rain clouds finally decided to arrive.

Soon, I’m driving in a downpour.

Los Alamos

At the top of the mesa, the road enters a descent sized town.

It looks remarkably normal.

The normality is an illusion, because until a half century ago people who lived
109 E. Palace Ave. Santa Fe109 E. Palace Ave. Santa Fe109 E. Palace Ave. Santa Fe

Replica of the building all Los Alamos recruits passed through, with the original gate
here could not even admit the city exists.

I’ve entered the secret town that designed the atomic bomb, Los Alamos.

Near the center of town sits a building that looks really out of place, a large structure looking like a log cabin.

The street next door has the curious name “Bathtub Row”.

Believe it or not, this building is a centerpiece of atomic history.

It now holds the Los Alamos Historical Museum, which tells the story of the town and the project that brought it into existence.

Los Alamos began life as an exclusive private boys’ school called the Los Alamos Ranch School.

It was founded in 1917 by Ashley Pond Jr.

He chose this remote location because he believed, like many, that New Mexico’s relatively unspoiled environment would enhance people’s health.

The school combined ranch life with a rigorous academic program.

All members were also required to join the Boy Scouts of America.

The school’s most famous student is one that surprises many, author Gore Vidal.

The museum has a surprising number of artifacts from the school.

It has old class schedules, which are as
Lab replicaLab replicaLab replica

Replica of a small portion of a lab building at Los Alamos
regimented as an army camp from sunrise to sunset.

Photos galore cover the walls.

One case holds old banners and sports trophies.

The building itself was built as a central gathering hall for arts performances, graduation ceremonies, and so forth.

Life proceeded uneventfully until J. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian director of the Manhattan Project, showed up in 1942.

Oppenheimer needed a place for a top secret laboratory to design the atomic bomb, and he thought the school was ideal.

He had hiked throughout the mountains of New Mexico, and knew the area well.

The school was isolated enough to provide the necessary secrecy, yet close enough to Santa Fe to get men and material to the site.

Thanks to the school, the needed roads already existed.

Of course, the school buildings themselves provided readymade infrastructure.

The army acquired the place a year later (given the reality of wartime, I suspect the museum is being polite) and started building Los Alamos.

Thanks to the project’s urgency, the Army built Los Alamos incredibly quickly.

Virtually all buildings were thrown together out of plywood.

The museum has a
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Small sample of the flyers the army circulated to promote secrecy at Los Alamos
replica of typical living quarters, which was basically the luxury version of an army barracks.

High ranking officials and key scientists took over the existing school faculty housing, located near the museum building.

The street is called “bathtub row” because these were the only living quarters with private baths.

Buildings quickly sprawled over the mesa top, with a street network nobody could navigate.

At Los Alamos secrecy was an obsession, of course.

It started with personnel recruitment.

Most of the scientists knew what was going on, but that didn’t extend to soldiers and support technicians.

Recruiters roamed factories looking for people that met almost laughably obfuscated requirements, such as the ability to operate a lathe on metal with particular properties.

Those selected got orders to report to 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe in civilian clothes.

They discovered an ordinary business office behind an iron gate, containing a single female receptionist, Dorothy McKibben.

She verified their paperwork and sent them out the back, where a bus waited to take people to the mesa.

The museum has the gate.

On the way up, the bus passed the
Mess suppliesMess suppliesMess supplies

Dinnerware from the army mess and community center

Every road to the mesa was guarded by soldiers.

They required passes to both enter Los Alamos and leave.

People rarely got permission to do either, since less people traveling meant less chance for the secret activity to leak.

The guardhouses only came done in the middle 1960s.

The museum has one, along with several of the passes.

Secrecy permeated every aspect of life in the city.

The project never published a phone book, because it would reveal the extraordinary number of physicists in one place.

The museum has samples of the fliers and leaflets that the army regularly circulated through the city, promoting an attitude of almost total paranoia.

Anyone could be a spy (Ironically, security missed the one man that actually was a spy, Edward Fuchs).

Phone calls were monitored, and all mail was censored.

The censorship could be quite pedantic, as the display shows: “Re: department store payment form. Forgot payment.”

People tried to live as normal a life as possible given the conditions.

The army turned the central school building into a community center.

People held regular play performances here, watched movies, and held
Atomic bomb lampAtomic bomb lampAtomic bomb lamp

One of many atomic bomb pop culture items produced in the 1950s

Although project leaders tried to discourage it, lots of young people in one place led to fraternization and marriages.

That in turn led to a mini-baby boom.

Babies born during the project years have post office box 1663 in Santa Fe as their official place of birth on their certificates, which are now a highly sought after collectable.

Los Alamos existence was finally revealed to the world after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945.

The museum has a quick discussion on the decision to use them, although nothing like that at the National Atomic Museum .

It has a sample of Trinitite from the first bomb test in New Mexico, plus a rare pocket watch from Hiroshima with hands frozen at the time the bomb exploded.

It also has the famous before and after aerial photos.

After the bomb, the Los Alamos specific part of the museum basically ends.

It segues into a general discussion of life after the bomb dropped.

The section on the Cold War and Civil Defense is less through than that at the National Atomic
No nukes!No nukes!No nukes!

Selection of anti-nuclear protest material
Museum, but it does the other museum one better on the bomb in popular culture.

Immediately after the war, people viewed the bomb as a technical miracle that had brought peace.

Bombs appeared in games, books, toys, and much else.

The museum has an atomic bomb lamp, and a photo of the atomic bomb shaped cake officials ate in 1946.

It also has a wall of anti-bomb protest material, such as the “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day” bumper sticker.

I wandered through downtown Los Alamos a little bit after the museum.

The place is depressingly normal.

Los Alamos has one of the highest concentration of people with advanced degrees in the country, but it doesn’t show outside the off limits lab.

The town does have a very good bookstore on science topics and the history of atomic weapons.

Sadly, they don’t carry a DVD that would be all too appropriate here, Stanly Kubrick’s pitch black Cold War comedy Doctor Strangelove.

Jemez Mountains

The road heads west into the Jemez Mountains after Los Alamos.

The first part passes through cliffs of crumbly sandstone covered in really black pine trees.

Jemez MountainsJemez MountainsJemez Mountains

Some of the soft sandstone cliffs surrounding Los Alamos
trees are black due to a huge forest fire this summer, which almost caused the Los Alamos laboratory to be evacuated.

The forest still contains uncountable snags and fallen logs, which make it dangerous to hike.

All the dirt roads and trailheads off the main highway are closed.

I ultimately reached the entrance of another major historic site around here, Bandelier.

All of the sandstone cliffs contain alcoves of various sizes.

Ancient inhabitants enlarged these depressions near a reliable water source and lived in them.

While the fire could not damage the cliffs themselves, it wrecked the surrounding forest and the site was closed.

I pushed on into the mountains.

The road now climbs through the pine forest.

Parts of it are clearly burned, others look normal, and the rest shows damage with careful observation.

This continues until the highway crests a rise and enters the edge of a wide open field surrounded by low mountains on all sides.

It’s the Valles Caldera, a huge former volcano.

Afterwards, the road enters a narrow gorge, the Jemez River.

The mountains get real close as the river and
Valles CalderaValles CalderaValles Caldera

Valles Caldera, the core of a former volcano
highway twist downhill.

The highway now has multiple signs that prohibit parking on the shoulders.

Finally, the roadway leaves the mountains and ends at a junction.

Desert and low hills stretch away in both directions.

After a quick check of the weather forecast, I turned west.

The rain gods have kept me from Chaco Canyon twice so far, but tomorrow should be dry.

I finally stopped in Cuba New Mexico, a town consisting of about ten buildings along the road, the last inhabited spot before Chaco.


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