Life at Los Alamos

The Los Alamos Main Gate

By Darren Court, WSMR Museum Director/Curator

The Valles Caldera, a large volcanic crater and field in northwest New Mexico.

In November, 1942, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and Colonel John Dudley visited Jemez Springs, near the Valles Caldera – a large volcanic crater and field in northwest New Mexico. Having considered other locations for the creation of a laboratory, the group found themselves in this remote part of New Mexico in pursuit of a location to bring together the various scattered groups who had been working on “problems” relating to the potential creation of a nuclear bomb.

A frontal view of the Los Alamos Ranch School, Los Alamos, New Mexico.”

General Leslie Groves arrived and quickly vetoed the location, but Oppenheimer knew of another, possibly better, location a bit closer to Santa Fe, New Mexico – so the group hopped back aboard their automobiles and took the rough dirt road back to the southeast.

The Los Alamos Ranch School was created as a resort by Ashley Pond in 1914 as an exclusive sports club. It failed as such, so he re-established it as an exclusive school for boys – the sons of America’s wealthy families.

Here, they would become men. Of course, this included wearing shorts year-round while sleeping in unheated fenced-in porches – even during cold winter nights. The ranch occupied one finger of a series of mesas and canyons extending east from the Pajarito Plateau and Sierra de los Valles – the eastern edge of the caldera. It was about 30 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the state capital. The ranch consisted of over 50 building – including the “Big House” – which could provide a starting point for the infrastructure the Army was anticipating it would need. However, the location had very poor access, with only one rough dirt road making the climb out of the Rio Grande valley to the ranch. Additionally, the nearest highway and railroad were quite distant. However, it would be relatively easy to ensure security for the new labs and housing needed. Santa Fe, itself, could provide a transit hub for those coming and going. Over dinner in Santa Fe that evening, Groves made the decision that the Army would purchase the ranch for what would be known as “Site Y,” and get the project moving.

The Ranch School’s Headmaster, A.J. Connell, protested the decision to no avail and valued the school and its property at over $500,000 – the Army budgeted $275,000 for the 9000 privately held acres and improvements to the site, including all of the buildings. A court awarded the school $335,000, and it was ordered closed by the end of January 1943. This gave the staff 2 months to complete the school year and graduate its seniors. An additional 45,000 acres of federally-owned land was taken as well. Grove’s had the location for his lab.

Dr. Richard Feynman

In a 1975 lecture, Dr. Richard Feynman recalled his early days at Los Alamos, and that his small group arrived much earlier than anticipated, forcing the construction company to increase their pace – having only completed the theater and a few other building – but no laboratories nor housing. Though the experimental group had to wait until the completion of the labs, the theoretical group could start right away – but where to live?

“We were pushing them by coming down ahead of time. So, they just went crazy and rented ranch houses all around the neighborhood. We stayed at first in a ranch house and drive in in the morning. The first morning I drove in was tremendously impressive. The beauty of the scenery, for a person from the East who didn’t travel much, was sensational,” said Dr. Feynman.

Dr. Stanislaw Ulam

Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, of the University of Michigan, had been recruited to the project but – like most – had not been told where it was or what he would be doing. Watching other colleagues gradually “disappear” was puzzling, but he was informed he would be working somewhere in New Mexico. Visiting the university library, he pulled a WPA guidebook of New Mexico from the shelf because his wife Francoise was curious about the state. Inside he found the list of borrowers; “To my amazement, several names of people who just disappeared a week or two before, were put down as borrowers.”

Lamy Railroad Depot

Those who came later during those first few months of 1943 tell similar stories – of not being told exactly where they were going, having to get off the train at the Lamy, New Mexico station, the ride into Santa Fe and 109 East Palace to be met by Dorothy McKibben, the scenery, the mountains, the “exotic” feel of this new place.

By March, 1943, Fuller Lodge had been converted to a restaurant, the classrooms were turned into the Post Exchange – complete with the t-shirts and other knick-knacks from the Ranch School – and the houses of the former Ranch School teachers became homes for the highest “ranking” scientists on the project. This group of homes came to be known as “Bathtub Row” because of a particular amenity they – and no others – contained. The Housing Office was placed in another of the old administration buildings. Ashley Pond was to the south of most of the former Ranch School building, and the Technical Area was built to its south. North of Ashley Pond, the administrative areas and Fuller Lodge, lay Bathtub Row and the apartments build by the Sundt company; Sundt company duplexes and four and eight-family apartments, as well as barracks, also lay on both sides of the main road into Los Alamos. To the west, one found the Morgan and McKee houses – the most “meager” on the site, with thin walls which allowed neighbors to really get to know one another! The scientists living on area ranches were able to finally move up to the site, and the experimental, ordnance, and other staffs were finally able to move in and begin work.

Four-Family Apartments

Jennet Conant, in 109 East Palace; Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, writes the Groves “…expected Los Alamos to operate like a military base, with the same discipline and austere living conditions. As a result of his tight-fisted, no frills, policies, Los Alamos had none of the civilizing touches found in even the smallest towns, such as paved roads or sidewalks, forcing the inhabitants to slog through the Spring mud like pig farmers.” The dirt – or mud – of Los Alamos is mentioned in almost every story told by those who live there. Another part of living at Los Alamos mentioned by many was the fence; scientists and their families who had been used to the openness of academic life often found their new lives restricted to a point where it affected the psychology of many Los Alamos inhabitants – in particular, the wives of the scientists who remained largely in the dark regarding what their husbands were doing. Ruth Marshak’s husband Robert, was deputy head of the Theoretical Group. Ruth worked as a third-grade teacher, as well as in the housing office, and wrote that the fence was a “…tangible barrier, a symbol of our isolated lives. Within it lay the most secret part of the atomic bomb project. Los Alamos was a world unto itself, an island in the sky.” Richard Feynman found a hole in the fence one day, large enough to pass through, and had fun with the guards by leaving through the gate and re-entering through the hole, then doing the same until the guards caught on; Groves, of course, was livid, but every time the hole was repaired another opened. There is some speculation that Oppenheimer was aware of it and took no action, allowing the local Pueblo and Hispanic people access to the PX and the theater by way of that hole in the fence.

Dr.RobertSerber

Security at Los Alamos was pervasive. For the scientists and engineers, this started with Groves insistence on compartmentalization, which Oppenheimer was able to thwart to an extent. Many of his colleagues were quite skeptical of the choice of Oppenheimer to run the project, but his demeanor and manner seemed to evolve quite dramatically during his tenure at Los Alamos. Hans Bethe had once described him as “a difficult human being” and was quite surprised in the change. John Manley, who Oppenheimer had tasked with recruiting physicists from across the country, remarked on this transformation, as well, and the “astonishingly rapid transition of this theorist” into the leader he became. His ability to compliment Groves, while putting the scientific research needs of the various groups first, made the project the success that it was. An important part of this success were the lectures of Robert Serber. These five lectures were provided to all of the scientists – regardless of their role in the project – and served to lay out the basic principles of an atomic weapon. Printed and bound, they became known as the “Los Alamos Primer” and copies were provided to all new scientists who joined the group.

A ‘return-to-sender’ letter that did not pass the censure screen. From the Wilder Collection, Los Alamos Historical Society Archives and Collections.

Secrecy for the families was sometimes more difficult, due to their lack of knowledge regarding the project. Phone calls were listened in on and all mail – incoming and outgoing – was read by army censors. Feynman and his wife used codes as an intellectual exercise when writing to each other – his wife was recuperating from tuberculosis in Albuquerque but, unfortunately, would pass away – and the censors demanded she enclose the code solution in her letters. These would be removed prior to Dr. Feynman being given his letters. Eventually, even this was forbidden. Visiting Santa Fe for shopping or a meal brought other concerns, as one never knew which of the town’s citizens or tourists were actually army G-2 counterintelligence officers or FBI agents listening in to make sure nothing was revealed. Jane Wilson, wife of physicist Robert Wilson, later said, “I couldn’t write a letter without seeing a censor pour over it. I couldn’t go to Santa Fe without being aware of hidden eyes upon me, watching, waiting to pounce on that inevitable mis-step. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.”

Charlotte Serber

The townspeople of Santa Fe were fully aware that “something” was going on at the old Ranch School but soon learned not to approach the strangers about it. Even Dorothy McKibben’s friends learned quite quickly not to ask her for details – it made for too many awkward silences. Speculation in Santa Fe had increased to the point where Oppenhiemer decided to try a little diversion. Robert Serber’s wife, Charlotte, and John Manley were called into Oppenheimer’s office and were directed to take numerous trips to Santa Fe and discuss the real purpose of Los Alamos – electric rockets!


The intersection of San Francisco Street and the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1943

The “spy ring” also included Robert Serber and Oppenheimer’s secretary Priscilla Greene. The group started at La Fonda Hotel, discussing the design and building of these rockets quite openly. Though they were concerned that G-2 would find out and haul them in, Oppenheimer told them not to worry about it, as he would take care of any problems. The ruse didn’t seem to be paying off – nobody paid them any attention! In frustration, they then went to a “workman’s bar” where Robert Serber approached a local rancher at the bar, and “practically took the man by his coat lapels, and said, “You know why they’re making all those loud noises and explosions up there, don’t you? They’re tests. They’re making electric rockets. That’s what they’re doing at Los Alamos!” The rancher wasn’t impressed. The group tried for another month or two, with no success.

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