Life in Los Alamos: Linking the Past and Present

Los Alamos residents in the 1940s found themselves in unusual circumstances. John von Neumann explained that, “At great expense we have gathered on this mesa the largest collection of crackpots ever seen.” Yet these people continued life under the cover of secrecy and created a community which has lasted until this day.

As the scientists and military personnel worked furiously to create an atomic weapon during the latter years of WWII, many moved to the classified town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Because their project was shrouded in such secrecy, they were required to move themselves and their family without knowing many of the details of their new job or location. Although the civilian and academic director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, tried to make it as much of a collaborative and normal operation as possible, the nature of their assignment meant that living in Los Alamos was unique. 

Many scientists arrived without knowing exactly where they would be working or what they would be doing. They were not even allowed to tell their spouses what their work in the restricted laboratories entailed. Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Oppenheimer spread disinformation to nearby cities, such as Santa Fe, that they were working on an electric rocket. Mail for all scientists was addressed to Box 1663, Sandoval County, Rural. It was liable to searches and some outgoing mail was redacted for security concerns. Even phone calls were monitored—army intelligence agents were obvious in listening in on people’s private conversations. Barbed wire covered the scenic landscape and made some workers feel as though they were the ones imprisoned rather than the liberators of those in European prison camps. 

Despite the secrecy and sometimes oppressive security, many familiar aspects of daily life continued in Los Alamos. Many women were given clerical jobs such as secretaries or computer operators to keep them occupied while their husbands worked. Children continued to attend school and babies continued to be born. In regards to the baby boom, the military official General Leslie Groves grumbled that they were simply taking advantage of the free healthcare awarded to those in the army effort. The few movies which were allowed to play were quite popular. In a move for additional entertainment, engineers and scientists threw amateur theatricals which even featured the eminent Oppenheimer in the role of “corpse.” 

The setting of Los Alamos itself served as a diversion for employees and their families. Oppenheimer had picked the site of Los Alamos for its beauty and openness. He thought that it could give the scientists a sense of freedom amidst all of their restrictions. Placed on top of towering mesas flanked by green mountains and overlooking fantastic natural features, there were many opportunities for outdoor recreation. During the winter, avid skiers trekked up the nearby Jemez Mountains and skied back down to their homes. The outdoor ice rink, built in 1936, became an unofficial youth center for local children to spend their winters with friends. The warmer months brought camping, horseback riding, fishing, and hiking. Curious children and adults also explored the many nearby Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites and ruins. 

Even though Los Alamos was a unique environment of brilliant scientists sequestered in the wilderness, life found a way to continue in relative normalcy. It grew out of a wartime necessity into a long-lasting community with unusual origins. Today, Los Alamos is home to around 13,000 people and a National Laboratory specializing in weapon-making for the United States government. The community maintains their engagement in many of the recreational activities that their predecessors did. The Pajarito Ski Hill and the ice rink continue to gather youth and adults during the winter months. Warmer times of the year bring outdoor sports, especially running and hiking, among the abundant natural landscape. Summer is also the ideal time for weapons testing. For seasoned Los Alamos citizens, a large explosion miles away that rattles windows and door frames is unsurprising—rarely do they suspect an earthquake.  The work and life of Los Alamos persists nearly a century after it was settled. 

Images

Statue of Oppenheimer and Groves
Statue of Oppenheimer and Groves Current statues of Dr. Oppenheimer and General Groves in the center of Los Alamos. Courtesy of Mary Ann Novak.
Oppenheimer Portrait
Oppenheimer Portrait Portrait of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Groves Portrait
Groves Portrait Portrait of General Leslie Groves, military director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Los Alamos Machinists
Los Alamos Machinists Portrait of Los Alamos machinists in 1945. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Army-Navy "E" Award
Army-Navy "E" Award General Groves presenting Dr. Oppenheimer and the National Laboratory with the Army-Navy “E” Award in October 1945. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Location

Metadata

Abigail Beus, Brigham Young University, “Life in Los Alamos: Linking the Past and Present,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/754.