Los Alamos is misleading. Most New Mexico towns, with their quaint adobe walls, emanate a sense of the past. But Los Alamos on first inspection lacks any feeling of real history. You drive up through some magnificent country into this town of strip malls constructed seemingly without rhyme or reason, like architectural rejects from thirty or forty years ago. It’s a strange juxtaposition: a drab suburb dropped amid some of the most spectacular mountain scenery New Mexico has to offer.

When J. Robert Oppenheimer first came here on extended camping vacations, there wasn’t much on this mountaintop besides the Los Alamos Ranch School—which was why the site came to mind in late 1942 when Oppenheimer was assisting in the search for an isolated location in which to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

Today, the approach to Los Alamos calls for a long climb (its altitude is 7,300 feet) through steep canyons shadowed by stands of juniper and piñon pines, fragrant in the hot Southwestern sun. It helps to have a taste for “interesting” driving, as the two lane roads twist and wind to follow the canyon contours. Newly installed government checkpoints are a reminder that what one is approaching is no ordinary tourist destination, but a storied and still vital scientific installation.

Isolation was part of the attraction back in 1917 as well, when the Los Alamos Ranch School—“where frail boys could grow into robust young men”—was established in a location intended to promote self-reliance and healthy outdoor living. On December 7, 1942, students at the school were informed that the U.S. Army was taking over the property—along with fifty-four thousand surrounding acres— in “the interests of the United States in the prosecution of the War,” as Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson put it. Classes were accelerated so the boys could complete the school year by February.

Today the school’s handsome stone and log buildings form the core of the old part of town and were the nucleus of the Manhattan Project’s facilities. And unlike much of the rest of Los Alamos, the old school buildings are loaded with character. Fuller Lodge, with its massive pine logs, reminds me of the Cartwright home from TV’s Bonanza. An arts center today, it was once the school’s dining room and kitchen and became a mess hall and guest quarters during the Manhattan Project. Next door, the school’s former guesthouse, an unassuming stone rambler, is now the site of the Los Alamos Historical Museum.

There I read a letter that Sgt. Ed Doty, a soldier stationed at Los Alamos, wrote to his parents after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima: “Ever since I got here I have known that this, if successful, would be the greatest of all the scientific discoveries, that it would bring a very quick end to the war…that I was having the unbelievable privilege of being a part, albeit a small one, of the greatest experiment and the greatest development the world had ever seen.”

A short walk down the street brings you to the modest house where Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s scientific director, lived with his family. The house, a one story log, stucco, and stone cottage, is at the end of a row of small, mostly stone homes known as “Bathtub Row,” the name given to the buildings when they housed key Ranch School personnel because they were the only houses in town with bath tubs. When the Manhattan Project took over, that caste system carried over, and the coveted homes were assigned to the senior scientists with the project. Laura Fermi, who lived there with her husband, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi, recalled, “As the months went by it became uncertain in envious minds whether Bathtub Row derived its luster from its residents or whether the residents acquired distinction from living in it.”

When not presumably luxuriating in their coveted bathtubs during off hours, these scientists were reporting for duty at the Los Alamos Laboratory, created in early 1943 for the sole purpose of building an atomic weapon. Now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, its mission has by necessity expanded—although national security is still foremost—as has its size, comprising over two thousand buildings and consuming forty square miles directly south of town.

In 1943 Los Alamos itself became a boomtown—though one often referred to by other names. Official arrival instructions for the hundreds of families relocating there during that summer referred to the destination only as “the Site.” It was variously known as “the Hill”and “the Project,” and for mail delivery—even for birth certificates—as “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” (Imagine having it on record that you were born in a PO box.)

Hastily constructed laboratory buildings, dormitories, Quonset huts, and trailers quickly sprung up around Los Alamos, lining freshly carved, unpaved roads that were often a quagmire of mud.

The town has been rebuilt and redeveloped repeatedly since World War II, and many of the original structures are no longer standing. The ranch school’s ice house is gone, but a memorial stands in its place near Ashley Pond, a cement-edged pond named in tongue-in-cheek fashion after the Ranch School’s founder, Detroit businessman Ashley Pond Jr. Parts of “the Gadget,” as the first prototype nuclear weapon was called with exaggerated understatement, were assembled in the icehouse before being detonated at the Trinity Site, near Socorro about 250 miles to the south, on July 16, 1945.

I’ve been to the Trinity Site once, and standing in front of the Ice House Memorial brought that visit to mind. The national historic landmark marking the world’s first atomic blast lies inside White Sands Missile Range in a scorched expanse of desert the Spanish called Jornada del Muerto. That summer morning in 1945 the name became all too meaningful: Journey of the Dead. It’s a place of mind-boggling emptiness, and it’s unnerving. Oh, the radiation levels are considered safe, although a warning on the White Sands Missile Range’s website isn’t exactly comforting:

“Although radiation levels are low, some feel any extra exposure should be avoided. The decision is yours. It should be noted that small children and pregnant women are potentially more at risk than the rest of the population and are generally considered groups who should only receive expo sure in conjunction with medical diagnosis and treatment. Again, the choice is yours.”

Here, the nineteen-kiloton explosion instantly illuminated the sky with a searing white light, transmuted the desert sand into a previously unknown green glassy substance dubbed trinitite, and changed the world forever.

Perhaps the best place to understand the changes that the Manhattan Project wrought is at Los Alamos’s Bradbury Science Museum, a short walk east from the historic buildings. As I step inside, I’m struck first by the colors: I didn’t know that Little Boy—the bomb dropped over Hiroshima—was olive green and that Fat Man, the Nagasaki bomb, was bright yellow. Contrasting with the vibrant colors and lights are whitish statues of Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, the military commander of the Manhattan Project. They’re freakish, as if they’ve been turned into pillars of salt after seeing the destruction they unleashed.

Bradbury visitors are somber. Even the children aren’t running around. They read the displays and watch the computer simulations and videos in humble silence. And I am humbled, especially at the Little Boy and Fat Man displays. Little Boy, the untested uranium-235 bomb, fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing an estimated seventy thousand, although radiation effects most likely shot that figure to two hundred thousand within five years. Fat Man, the plutonium-239 bomb tested at the Trinity Site, was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Casualties were similar to those at Hiroshima, forcing Japan to sur render on August 15.

I can’t help wondering what it would have been like to have the job of creating those weapons, a job that the workers here, living and toiling in a community surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by mounted guards, were prohibited from discussing even with their families. And suddenly the place no longer looks so much like Everytown, U.S.A. In fact, it looks much like the place British physicist James Tuck, director of the British delegation to the Manhattan Project, marveled held “so many people doing a damned difficult job wresting the secrets from nature.”

“I’ve never seen a place less ordinary,” was how Tuck described it.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here