Road Trip: Los Alamos, New Mexico

Los Alamos, New Mexico has had several nicknames over the years: Secret City, The Hill, Atomic City, and Site Y.  The city exists because it grew up around the Los Alamos Laboratory where the world’s first atomic weapons were secretly developed. Current national security projects continue at the laboratory today. Los Alamos is also the home of one-third of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The other park units are in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington. We will explain why the park spans three sites later in the post. In the meantime, enjoy your tour of the Los Alamos unit.

Where is It?

The city of Los Alamos sits in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains about 33 miles northwest of New Mexico’s capitol city of Santa Fe. The visitor center is located at 475 20th Street and is a good place to begin the self-guided walking tour of the historic sites and museums. The park is free to visit, although the Los Alamos History Museum requires an admission fee. Click here to access the park’s website.

Statues of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director, and General Leslie Groves, military director, both of whom oversaw Project Y which was the code name for the secret Los Alamos Laboratory.

The History Begins With the Los Alamos Ranch School

Ashley Pond, Jr., a Detroit, Michigan native and one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish American War, founded the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1917. Pond’s love of the outdoors, ranching, and New Mexico’s fresh air are what drove him to establish the prep school that catered mainly to the sons of wealthy east coast families.

The Ranch School’s Big House. The building which no longer exists served as the boy’s sleeping quarters where they slept on screened porches year-round. It also housed a library, study rooms, and classrooms. During the Manhattan Project, the Big House was home to several scientists who all shared one bathroom.

The government paid almost a half million dollars for the school and 50,000 acres of surrounding land. In December 1942, the school’s director received notice that the school was to be surrendered to the government as a matter of utmost importance in the prosecution of the war.

The Alamos Ranch School closed after its last graduation in January 1943, and the military moved in. Nine months later, a secret laboratory had been built and work was underway for the development of atomic weapons. Along with it a secret city was quickly springing up for the project’s workers and their families. Meanwhile, Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee were also becoming top secret worksites for other phases of the Manhattan Project.

Fuller Lodge was originally the headquarters, staff quarters and mess hall for the Ranch School. It then served as a dining hall, community center, and guest quarters for visiting scientists during the Manhattan Project. The lodge is still a community center today.

Historic Sites

Our walking tour began at the park’s visitor center. The delightful lady working in the office gave us information about the historical sites and also told us about the filming sites of the (then) upcoming movie Oppenheimer. Click here to view a YouTube movie trailer.

We then walked down the street called Bathtub Row. The homes on Bathtub Row were originally built to house the Ranch School’s faculty. With Project Y’s new homes and dormitories – hastily built for the purpose of merely lasting until the end of the war – only having showers, the community began referring to the street where some of the top officials and scientists lived as Bathtub Row. You guessed it, they had the only bathtubs in town, and the name stuck.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family lived in this home.
This cottage, also built for the Ranch School, was home to Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Edwin McMillan during the Manhattan Project. Hans Bethe (pronounced Beta), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who specialized in nuclear reactions, lived there in 1945-1946. The house is now home to the Los Alamos History Museum’s Harold Agnew Cold War Gallery. By the way, Harold Agnew was also a Manhattan Project physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979.

Trivia: Eighteen of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos under the direction of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer were Nobel Prize winners. Oppenheimer was a Nobel nominee on three different occasions, however, he never won.

Guest Cottage.
The guest cottage, built 1918, once served as the Ranch School’s infirmary and guest quarters for visiting parents of the students. Today it is the main building of the Los Alamos History Museum, a can’t-miss stop when visiting the park.

Massive Efforts

As part of our walking tour, we visited the Los Alamos History Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum where we learned a lot about the history of Los Alamos and the incredible efforts that went into the Manhattan Project. Below are some historic photos that are relevant to the testing of the first atomic weapon.

The Trinity device, codenamed The Gadget, was detonated at the Trinity Site near the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The blast resulted in the world’s first nuclear explosion.
Manhattan Project chemist and explosives expert Donald Hornig sits atop the 100-foot Trinity test tower with the Gadget.
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves with a few scraps of metal – all that was left of the tower after the Trinity test.
The photo above is the only color image captured at the Trinity site. Department of Energy photo via Wikipedia.

It’s hard to believe that less than a month after the Trinity test, a uranium bomb called Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima, Japan. Fat Man, a bomb fueled by plutonium exploded over the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later. The bombings, while unimaginably devastating, effectively brought an end to World War II.

Post-war model of Little Boy.

Trivia: The fireball created by the Trinity test carried up sand that melted in the mushroom cloud. The melted sand then dropped back to earth where it solidified into a new manmade mineral. Scientists dubbed the new mineral trinitite.

Three Sites, One Goal

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was home to another secret city that was built for the purpose of enriching uranium to fuel nuclear weapons and also to produce small amounts of plutonium. Interestingly, most of its 50,000 workers did not know they were working on components of the first atomic weapons. Today Oak Ridge is still home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest laboratory in the US.

Oak Ridge, TN - Manhattan Project National Historical Park ...
Oak Ridge site. National Park Service/Department of Energy Photo.

Another large industrial complex was built in Hanford, Washington for the purpose of producing plutonium. According to the National Park Service, the complex had huge production-scale reactors, chemical separations plants, and fuel fabrication facilities. The Hanford site employed approximately 51,000 workers.

Aerial photo of a housing community on a flat desert with mountains in the background.
Hanford, Washington site. Department of Energy Photo.

Air transportation was too risky for the transport of plutonium and uranium. Therefore, the elements produced by the Oak Ridge and Hanford laboratories were delivered to Los Alamos by inconspicuous, unguarded “traveling salesmen” who hand carried special luggage via the railroad.

The wartime Project Y – Los Alamos Laboratory. Originally designed for about 150 scientists, engineers and others, the laboratory employed more than 2,500 people by the end of the war. At the time, it was the largest laboratory in the world. A new campus was built across town in the 1950s and is home to the national laboratory’s current location.

Trivia: At its height of employment in 1944, approximately 129,000 people worked on the secretive Manhattan Project, and of those 84,500 were construction workers.

More History Around Town

The laboratory was built around the existing Ashley Pond, named after the founder of the Los Alamos Ranch School.
Today Ashley Pond is the centerpiece of a beautiful city park.
small guard shack with sign stating that passes must be presented to guards, a nineteen forties era car is parked there
The east gate was the only way in or out of Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and for some years after. National Park Service photo.
Today this replica of the Main Gate is a feature of Main Gate Park at the top of the hill on the east side of the city.
Built in 1948 at the site of a checkpoint, the guard tower stands across the street from Main Gate Park as a chilling reminder of the secrecy of Los Alamos. Today there are still checkpoints where visitors must show an ID and state their business on the main road through the national laboratory’s campus.
Performing Arts Center/Los Alamos Little Theater. During the Manhattan Project, this building was the laboratory’s east cafeteria which reportedly had the best food in town.
File:Los Alamos aerial view.jpeg
The “new” Los Alamos National Laboratory campus in 1995. Wikimedia Commons Photo.

The Manhattan Project was successful due to a massive effort that spanned just 27 months from start to finish and included thousands of military and civilian laborers who worked toward a common goal although they were located in three separate sites across the country.

Thank you so much for joining us on our historical tour of Los Alamos! For more national park inspiration, check out these great sites:    

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.




69 thoughts on “Road Trip: Los Alamos, New Mexico

  1. What a compelling chapter of history. Wilhelm’s Way: The Inspiring Story of the Iowa Chemist Who Saved the Manhattan Project (by Harvey Wilhelm’s granddaughter) is a story important to world history, to WWII history, to Iowa history, to the history of Iowa State University. But it’s also a masterfully written family story of the humble man who indeed influenced the outcome of WWII.

  2. Ooh, awesome! My grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project (primarily at the Hanford site), developing plutonium, so I’m always fascinated by the history. I had no idea about the ranch school or the traveling salesmen. Wow! Thank you for sharing! If you happen to enjoy historical fiction, there’s a great book set at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project called The Atomic Weight of Love.

  3. I only know of Los Alamos through the Manhattan Project (and from the recent film Oppenheimer). Who would’ve thought that a random city in the middle of the desert would have such a dark past and so many secrets? Very fascinating stuff, and I appreciate you writing about this place!

  4. I saw Oppenheimer the movie recently. Your post was much more informative regarding the operations at Los Alamos. I wonder about the extent of knowledge about radiation at the Trinity site when the photo was taken. I’ve been to Santa Fe twice and never realized Los Alamos was so close. I hope to return and see it.

    1. Thank you, John! We absolutely loved the movie, but it wouldn’t have made such an impact on us if we had not visited Los Alamos. It is extremely interesting to visit the buildings and the museums. The laboratory and park offer “behind the fence” tours a couple of times a year, and we would love to do one of those sometime. The Trinity Site is also open twice a year for tours. I hope you get to go. The city itself is gorgeous and there is a lot to do in the vicinity that does not have to do with the historical park. We stayed for two days and definitely could’ve stayed longer.

  5. Oh my goodness, Mike and Kellye, what a fascinating post! One of your best. Thanks for bringing to life this difficult piece of American history. I can’t believe the school was just taken over, like that. And “Bathtub Row”!! So cool.

  6. Geoff Stamper

    Enlightening and entertaining as always. I assume the residents of Bathtub Row would rather have been remembered for some other aspect of their privilege!

  7. A great tour of this history for sure Kellye. An amazing project from which the world may never be the same. I was fortunate enough to visit Hiroshima and Ground Zero and see the total destruction this project brought on the citizens of this Japanese city (selected because it had no historically significant buildings like Kyoto). Too bad devastation is always directed on the innocent populations of the world. If we could only target armies and governments instead, the world might be a better place. Hope you had a great weekend. Allan

  8. Fascinating and engaging history, though harrowing as well. Having visited Auschwitz, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the war museums of Vietnam (amongst others), the stories of the devastation of people where genocide is treated as a stepping stone, is never anything but horrific. But it’s history which we should all know and learn.

    1. Horrific is almost too mild, but I agree that we should learn about these events because we don’t want them to happen again! I hope there is never another occasion where nuclear weapons are used. Thanks for reading the post and for your comment. Hopefully, I will get caught up on all the posts I’ve missed over the last couple of weeks.

  9. This is all so fascinating! I haven’t seen Oppenheimer yet, it’s surprisingly hard to get movie tickets in NYC without planning weeks ahead. I would be so nervous to be transporting the plutonium and uranium. Seems like a very dangerous job!

  10. Very interesting post! I believe I read another blogger’s post awhile back about visiting the site in Oak Ridge, TN. This history is tough to think about but so important that we do. I hope to visit these sites one day, and I will look for the movie, “Oppenheimer.” Thank you for an excellent post.

  11. A fascinating site to explore and learn more about, the place where the world forever changed. Sladja tells me that her visit to Hiroshima Memorial Park is one of the hardest things she’s ever done while travelling. It’s hard to believe that they transported uranium and plutonium around unprotected and hand-carrying the stuff. Great tour, Kellye, so informative and interesting.

  12. The walking tour sounds like a great way to see some of the historical sites and learn more about the history of Los Alamos and about the Manhattan Project. The little bits of trivia were also super interesting. Thanks for sharing. Linda

  13. This looks like a fascinating place to visit! We saw Oppenheimer so I could picture some of the activity as I read your descriptions and saw the old photos. Do the exhibits delve into the rights and wrongs of the bomb or are they mainly focused on the science?

    1. The exhibits do not delve into the rights and wrongs of the bombs, just mainly the scientific aspects of how they were built and how the physicists and others came together to build them. Oppenheimer sure did delve though. I agonized right along with him through the movie. Can you imagine having that weighing on you?

  14. Brad M

    Great story and history lesson. Also a very interesting part of history when a country can come together for a single purpose. Right or wrong, it’s done now. Certainly glad it wasn’t one of the “Axis of Evil” countries that won that race.

  15. I think it is so interesting to have a historic park span over multiple states. Really interesting read on this part of the atomic bomb story! While the end result is a mixed bag of feeling, the history and science behind is fascinating:)

  16. Los Alamos must be a very interesting place to visit. It’s also perfect timing on your side to visit Los Alamos with the movie Oppenheimer out now, right? It’s hard to imagine how everything was done in such great secrecy when you look at how big the whole setup was.

  17. Mike and Kellye, thanks so much for this tour of Los Alamos. We drove through there during our travels in New Mexico but didn’t stop to take a tour. We recently saw the movie “Oppenheimer” – I highly recommend it. I really enjoyed seeing the actual location after seeing the movie.

  18. Another excellent walk through of somewhere we haven’t had the pleasure of visiting yet. Read about it a lot (brother is a nuclear physicist) so needless to say we are quite aware of what went on there, but never physically made it down there yet.

  19. A very fascinating article on Los Alamos, the purchase of the Los Alamos Ranch School and how it ended up being the top secret location for the development of nuclear weapons.

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