Los Alamos, New Mexico
August 28, 2019
(Elevation: 7,320 ft.)
"My two great loves are physics and desert country. It's a pity that they can't be combined."
Los Alamos, Spanish for “The Cottonwoods”, is a town in north-central New Mexico. Located in high desert across four mesas of the Paiarito Plateau, the town is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world.
In the beginning of 1943, Los Alamos was known mostly for being the home of Los Alamos Ranch School, a remote prep school for East Coast elites. By the end of the year, it had become one of the largest and most secretive scientific research facilities in the country; Los Alamos was now home to the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bombs, resulting in the end of World War II.
The town features historic sites and a museum dedicated to nuclear science. It is also a gateway to two nearby national park sites: Bandelier National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve. 70 plus years removed from nuclear weapons development, Los Alamos continues to play a crucial part in diverse scientific research and development for the federal government.
Los Alamos Ranch School
The Los Alamos Ranch School was founded in 1917 by Detroit businessman, Ashley Pond. The school offered a program modeled after the Boy Scouts of America, combining a college preparatory curriculum with a rigorous outdoor life, which included outdoor calisthenics, regardless of weather, and sleeping on porches year-round.
The main building of the campus, Fuller House (photos above), was completed in 1928, and was constructed from some 770 ponderosa pine and aspen logs.
In November 1942, the school and the surrounding land were purchased by the United States Army, for use in the top-secret effort to develop the first atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project. The school closed January 1943 and the Army took control of the property the following month.
The site was chosen by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves and project manager Robert J. Oppenheimer because of its isolation, and pre-existing buildings which could be used for housing. It was also located on a mesa which could be easily secured.
Monument to Dr. Oppenheimer and General Groves, at entrance to the Fuller House.
Los Alamos History Museum
Built as an infirmary in 1918 and later used as the guest cottage for Los Alamos Ranch School, the museum is in the oldest continually occupied structure in town. During the Manhattan Project (1943 to 1947), the cottage continued to serve as guest quarters, notably for General Leslie R. Groves.
The building now serves as an award-winning, comprehensive history museum which presents our world-changing and varied history. It was one of the high points of the entire trip.
These homes were originally built for the Ranch School as faculty housing. Having the only bathtubs in town, they quickly acquired the name “Bathtub Row.” Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s former home still stands at the corner of Bathtub Row and Peach Street. While the homes are private property and are closed to the public, the Hans Bethe House is accessible and has a fascinating the Cold War exhibit.
Over two years, renowned physicists, chemists, metallurgists, explosive experts and thousands of military personnel converged on the isolated plateau; at times, six Nobel Prize winners gathered here with the other scientists and engineers to develop the deadly weapon that would end the war. Some of the most prominent lived on Bathtub Row.
Los Alamos Post Office
During the Manhattan Project, mail to Los Alamos residents was simply addressed to P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico, then forwarded to the post office in Los Alamos. Los Alamos was so secret that it was not on any map, and no one who went to live and work there was permitted to tell friends or family members where they were going. Babies born during the Manhattan Project had “P.O. Box 1663” listed as their birthplace on their birth certificates. By the end of the war, five thousand people were assigned P.O. Box 1663.
Ashley Pond and the Ice House
Pre-War Ashley Pond
Ashley Pond at Height of the
A landmark dating back to ranch-school days, Ashley Pond Park is named after the founder of the Los Alamos Ranch School, and was used for skating and ice cutting. during the school's tenure. During the Manhattan Project, the perimeter around pond was transformed into an atomic bomb research and development complex.
The pond's ice house, once used for storing the school's ice supply, was converted into a laboratory and used to build the mechanism for firing the atomic bomb, known as "The Gadget".
After the war, all of the atomic industrial complex surrounding the pond, including the ice house, were removed.
Ashley Pond and its surroundings are now a 10 acre public park, designed for walks, picnics, concerts, events, public art, and monuments that commemorate the historic events which occurred here.
Raised-relief map of New Mexico
Bradbury Museum, Los Alamos
Photo by Margaret Martonosi