The Totally Normal Town Where Everyone Worked on Weapons of Mass Destruction
A 1954 report from the birthplace of the atomic bomb wants you to know that everything is totally “normal” in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Image: Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory / Wikimedia Commons
In the early 1940s, the United States made its nuclear weapons program a priority with the establishment of the Manhattan Project, a top secret research initiative that would eventually yield the world's first atomic bomb. Despite its moniker, the Manhattan Project wasn't undertaken in New York City, but was carried out at top secret research facilities around the United States. The most famous of these was Los Alamos National Laboratory (nee Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory), a compound tucked away in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and his handpicked team of top physicists worked in utter secrecy and isolation to develop the most powerful weapon in history.
But as a recently released 1954 memo drafted for PR purposes wants you to know, there's more to Los Alamos than its top secret atomic weapons program. Like the Jeb Bush of travel brochures, this document wants you to know that Los Alamos is completely "normal" and to please stop pretending like it's not. Please.
The site of Los Alamos was recommended by Oppenheimer, in part because it was close to his own New Mexico ranch and also for its isolation. So the US government took over a local school to use as its laboratory and set to work developing a bomb…and a community.
As detailed in the report, "it was considered essential in 1942 to establish a nuclear weapons laboratory [at Los Alamos], and it was of course considered equally essential to provide living quarters and mess halls for the crew and to maintain and supply the project." The US government intended to demolish the lab after the war, so all facilities were considered temporary and generally made from cheap wood. At most, the government reckoned it'd only have to account for 150 scientists, military personnel and their families during Los Alamos' existence, but by the end of its first operational year there were more than 1,500 people inhabiting this shanty town. By the end of the war, Los Alamos boasted a population of over 8,000.
Fortunately for the new emigres to scenic Los Alamos (and unfortunately for the rest of the world), the US government decided it really liked to make nuclear weapons. So rather than tear down the Los Alamos facilities after the war, it began to develop a full-blown community around the lab, replete with "houses, schools, stores, utilities, warehouses" and churches representing 14 different denominations.
Based on the report, it was a rough start for Los Alamos National Laboratory and its community. "At the end of the war, various utility systems, marginal at best, failed completely during the winter, adding to the bleakness of existence in the mud-street and duckboard reservation," the anonymous author of the report notes. But hey, the nearest railhead was only 35-miles away, so if the denizens of Los Alamos closed their eyes and squinted, they could almost imagine they were still connected to civilization.
By the time the report was written in 1953, Los Alamos had just become self-sufficient. For the first time ever, the township managed to generate more revenue than it cost the government to prop up through the Zia Company, which was responsible for all public utilities in the town. In fact, Los Alamos could almost pass as a normal town.
It had multiple barber shops, movie theatres, and jewelers, a photography store, pastry shop and even a florist. There was a police force and fire department, albeit one directly subsidized by the federal Atomic Energy Council that also had to be trained in special firefighting techniques involving radioactive materials. There was a daily flight from Los Alamos to Albuquerque, a library stocked with over 18,000 titles, and living space aplenty, with the smallest one-bedroom apartments going for $22 a month and rents for the largest units capped at $135. Residents of Los Alamos could even listen to the radio, a luxury that wasn't afforded them during wartime. Their local station, KRSN was presided over by a certain Robert Porton, whose "large record collection is the envy of many a disc jockey."
Sure, most of 12,000 citizens were working on developing weapons of mass destruction or the family members of someone who was, but other than that, Los Alamos was a paragon of idyllic 50s American life.
"First-time visitors to Los Alamos often come with a preconceived notion that the will find something awesome and abnormal about the Los Alamos community," the report reads. "They leave, however, with the feeling of having visited an interesting but a perfectly 'normal' American community."
In the 60 years since this report was written, it seems as though little has changed in the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The population still hovers around 12,000, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is still in the business of "national security science," and kitschy stores and restaurants with names like Atomic City Quilts or Atomic Eyecare abound.
That's right, it's business as usual in Los Alamos: the totally "normal" town where absolutely nothing strange is going on whatsoever.