Los Alamos, New Mexico
by Louise E. Reithel
(A program presented to the Curry County Genealogical Society, Monday, April 6,
Some years ago, Bob and I had the unusual experience of living at
Los Alamos, New Mexico when it was a closed city. No one could enter unless they had
official business, or were invited to come in. There was a tall chain link fence all
around the city with signs all along that read; "Danger", "Keep Out", or "Do not enter".
There was a main gate on the road that leads into Los Alamos. The gate was heavily guarded
by security police, and it was very difficult to get a pass through it. There was a tall
observation tower to the left of the gate with a guard always on duty.
In 1953, Bob was teaching physics at the University of Kentucky
in Lexington, and he was offered a chance to do research work at the Los Alamos Scientific
Laboratory, and lived at Los Alamos for the next sixteen years. He thought this would be
interesting work and took the offer. He was investigated and cleared by the FBI-------. So
we traveled to New Mexico and lived at Los Alamos for the next sixteen years..
Los Alamos is 30 miles NW of Santa Fe, New Mexico, high up in the
Jemez Mountains (altitude 7,200 ft.) on a plateau that extends out from the mountains
called Pajarito Plateau. This plateau is a very remote, isolated area and was only
inhabited by humans twice before.
From 1100 AD to about 1560 AD by cliff dwelling Indians,
descendants of the Anasasi Indians of the four corners region. After living on the
Pajarito Plateau a little more than 400 years they left probably because of drought. They
moved down in the valley near the Rio Grande River or other streams. They became known as
the Pueblo Indians. They built their dwellings with clay brick and held together with mud
The Puye' Indian ruins are about ten miles from Los Alamos. There
you will find a good example of the type of dwelling they used. This site is open to the
public every year for their ceremonials. The Santa Clara Pueblo Indians are descendent of
the Puye' Indians.
After the Indians left Pajarito Plateau, no one lived there until
1917-18 when a man named Ashley Pond built the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys. He built
log houses to live in and one two story log house for classrooms. It is still in use at
Los Alamos. This school was an exclusive school for boys and advertised as offering an
education as well as healthy living conditions in the dry, mountain air. The outdoor
activities included horse back riding, outdoor camping and back-packing trips. One of the
students who came to the school was Robert Oppenhiemer.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Navy at
Pearl Harbor and sank many U.S. ships. This drew us into war. England was already at war
with Germany and their secret agents had discovered German scientists were working with
uranium to build bombs; atomic bombs.
Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt held a conference in
1942 and decided we needed to work on the same kind of project and it could be done more
safely in the U.S. away from the espionage, sabotage, and commando agents working in
Europe and England.
By now, Robert Oppenheimer was a leading theoretical physicist
and he was selected to head up the research. He agreed to assemble a group of scientists
to do the work. He also requested strict secrecy and protection from any publicity.
Remembering the isolation of Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico, he asked for a Laboratory to
be established there.
In early 1943, the U.S. government purchased over 700 acres of
land in and around Pajarito Plateau which included all of log buildings of the old Los
Alamos Ranch School. It was called a “military reservation”.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were brought in and proceeded to
build a town. General Leslie Groves was the military director and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer
was the director of the scientists working at the Lab.
The buildings were military type barracks for housing at first.
There were wooden apartment buildings for family living quarters. In later years, single
family houses were built. A hospital was also built.
The Laboratory buildings were entirely separated from the town
site. Badges were needed to get into the city of Los Alamos and when Bob went to the Lab
to work he had to turn in his badge for the town and he was issued another badge to get in
the Los Alamos Lab. Not until 1960 were family members allowed to visit the lab site.
The first three years that Los Alamos existed, no mail could be
directed to the residents except through P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their return
address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Even babies that were born in Los Alamos
were recorded as born at P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe. NM!
The population of Los Alamos by 1945 was 6,000. This included the
military, scientists and their families, the security police, firemen, and other support
residents like those who ran filling stations, grocery stores, and other stores at the Los
Los Alamos is a city of “badges”. Everyone had to have a badge
with their picture on it and stamped Atomic Energy Commission.
The Lab scientists succeeded in building an atomic bomb and
tested it the 16th of July, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico. About three weeks later, the
6th of August, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. That ended
When we moved to Los Alamos in 1953, the population was 12,000.
The city was still closed. There was no local newspaper, no door-to-door salesmen, no one
could own a home, no rich people, and no poverty, no public bar (there was one liquor
store), no cemetery, several churches, two theatres, a pool hall, and no fast food eating
places. There was a golf course, a baseball team, Cub Scout Pack, and Boy Scout Troop. Bob
went fishing and hunting. There was also a ski run behind the town site, and skating rink
in a canyon. We had excellent schools and teachers.
Los Alamos was a very quiet area. No railroad nearby; therefore
no train whistle. No airplanes flew overhead except for Carco Airlines at a small local
airport.. Everyone was young at Los Alamos; 28 years to 40 years of age.
Los Alamos County was created in 1949 and became the 32nd county
in New Mexico. In 1957, the Los Alamos gate was opened up and it became an open city.
The Lab sites continue to be closed to all those who do not work
there. Research work was expanded in the 1960's to include: solar and geothermal energy,
medical research to fight cancer, the inter-solar space program, the computer revolution,
the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, fusion and laser research.
Dr. Oppenheimer left Los Alamos shortly after 1945 and became the
director of the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Princeton. (Dr.
Oppenheimer died in 1967)
Dr. Norris E. Bradbury was the director at Los Alamos from 1945
to 1970. The Los Alamos Science, Museum and Exhibit Hall was named for him and called The
Norris Bradbury Science Hall and Museum in 1970. In the 1980’s it was attracting about
85,000 visitors a year.
I once read a good description of the city of Los Alamos. It was:
Born in emergency
Built in secrecy
Clothed in mystery
Developed for the protection of the U.S.A.
by: Louise E. Reithel
LOS ALAMOS: The First Forty Years, by Fern Lyon and Jacob Evans.
Published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in 1984.
ATOMIC CITY MOST REGIMENTED by Lee Ferrero in the Denver Post,
April 26, 1954.
Copyright © 1998 by Louise E. Reithel.
Louise E. Reithel granted permission for this story to be
displayed on the Los Alamos USGenWeb Project site. It cannot be quoted, copied, used, or
reproduced by any method without the written permission of Louise E. Reithel. Harold