The Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) and the Los Alamos Historical Society (LAHS) have launched an online “Ranger in Your Pocket” program on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, NM. As AHF President Cynthia Kelly explained, “We have collected over 500 oral histories of Manhattan Project participants. Now we are taking excerpts from these firsthand accounts to help visitors to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park appreciate what it meant to live and work on the project.”
The Los Alamos tour features fifteen audio/visual vignettes focusing on several key Manhattan Project properties. The Los Alamos tour will eventually encompass all of the Bathtub Row houses, Fuller Lodge, Ashley Pond, the Romero Cabin and other properties that are on the Los Alamos Historical Society’s walking tour.
“The Los Alamos Historical Society is pleased to partner with the Atomic Heritage Foundation on this innovative project,” stated Heather McClenahan, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Historical Society. “With the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, this will be another tool to help visitors understand the depth, breadth and complexity of Los Alamos history.
“Remember, General Leslie R. Groves never intended Los Alamos to be permanent. As a result, we have just a handful of wartime buildings left. ‘Ranger in Your Pocket’ is a wonderful way for visitors to get more information about these precious historic buildings, especially those that are privately owned and not open to the public.”
Visitors can listen to Manhattan Project lab director J. Robert Oppenheimer explain why he suggested the site in November 1942 as the perfect location for the top-secret weapons laboratory: “My feeling was that if you are going to ask people to be essentially confined, you must not put them in the bottom of a canyon. You have to put them on the top of a mesa. It was not a place where you felt locked up.”
The Manhattan Engineer District quickly arranged to purchase the Los Alamos Ranch School, an exclusive private school for boys whose notable students included future authors Gore Vidal and William Burroughs. The Ranch School buildings were turned into homes for top-echelon scientists and military leaders. Nondescript apartment buildings, huts, trailers, dormitories and barracks were quickly built to accommodate hundreds of others who worked on the bomb.
The “Ranger in Your Pocket” tour highlights the important role Fuller Lodge has played at Los Alamos since the days of the school, when it was the dining and recreation hall. In one vignette, McClenahan discusses the dress code of the inter-school dances: “The Los Alamos Ranch School boys were all Boy Scouts. They were required to wear their uniforms at all times, and those uniforms were shorts. We have these wonderful pictures of the girls in their long, formal gowns and the boys wearing their shorts, dancing in this room.” Fuller Lodge continues to be a community center and the “heart and soul of Los Alamos” today.
Other vignettes focus on two homes on Bathtub Row, the Stone Power House and the Baker House. Explosives expert George Kistiakowsky and his teenaged daughter Vera lived in the Stone Power House during the project. While her father was solving the implosion problem for the Fat Man bomb, Vera was often riding horseback alone over the mesa.
Some of the wives thought that Vera should find some companions to ride with, such as the twin daughters of Sir James Chadwick. Discoverer of the neutron, Chadwick led the scientists who were part of the British Mission at Los Alamos and played an important role in the atomic bomb project. The Chadwicks lived in the Baker House, across the street from the Kistiakowskys.
However, Chadwick’s daughters were young British debutantes and far less experienced as equestrians. Vera recalled, “My attitude was that this was a fate worse than death to be condemned to ride with two young ladies, which I did not aspire to be.” Not surprisingly, the Chadwick twins did not enjoy the rides. Before long, the Chadwicks moved to Washington, DC, where Sir James worked closely with General Leslie R. Groves.
Richard Baker, a physical chemist, remembers being recruited by Oppenheimer who showed him a picture of Ashley Pond from the 1930s. “It had two swans floating around on it and a canoe. Well, it looked pretty good.” Unfortunately, “By the time I arrived here, Ashley Pond—due to construction—had been reduced to just one great big mud hole!” But Baker grew to love Los Alamos and lived in the former Chadwick house for thirty-six years.
AHF plans to develop a full suite of Manhattan Project tours on the responsive “Ranger in Your Pocket” website. Visitors to the new park can use their smartphones and tablets to access these self-guided tours. There are now nearly 100 vignettes that include a tour of the B Reactor, feature life at Hanford, WA, and the pre-war history of Hanford’s pioneers. AHF hopes to complete the current Los Alamos tour and produce a tour of Oak Ridge, TN next.
For the Los Alamos program, AHF is very grateful for grants from the Los Alamos Historical Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Kerr Foundation. Thanks to Craig Martin for his help with supplying historic photos for the production.