Los Alamos, New Mexico

by Louise E. Reithel
(A program presented to the Curry County Genealogical Society, Monday, April 6, 1998.)

    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 mortar.
    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 Alamos Center.
    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 the war.
    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 Kilmer