In the Footsteps (Part 2)

To view more photographs (different photographs!) and Part 1 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.

Inside the Lamy Train Station

Henry Cullen, Anna’s grandfather, was a Pullman conductor on The Chief, one of the Santa Fe Railway’s famous named trains, its route spanning two-thirds of the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the last two years of World War II, Henry noticed something odd: a steady stream of men with foreign accents, voices inflected with the tones of middle and Eastern Europe, lots of German, were getting off the train in Lamy, New Mexico. The place was beautiful, with mountains rising in the distance no matter where you looked. But there wasn’t much there. Even the famed Harvey House El Ortiz, with its quaint hacienda-like atmosphere and its gorgeous Mary Colter-designed interior, was an open lot next to Lamy’s Santa Fe station, having been shuttered in 1933, burned in 1938, and razed in 1943.

It was only in the denouement of the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, when news about Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Engineer District was released to the public, that it became clear to Conductor Henry Cullen what was going on in the high-desert near Lamy and who those mysterious men riding his train had been. Scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, some traveling under assumed names (Enrico Fermi = Ed Farmer, Niels Bohr = Nicholas Baker), arrived in Lamy from their academic posts at the University of Chicago and the East Coast and also from Berkeley and the West Coast.

Geodetic Marker, Lamy, NM

Lamy is an even quieter town now. The one-hundred-year-old Amtrak station is manned by Vince, who gave us the historical and cultural lay of the land when we visited to walk in the footsteps of the nation’s atomic scientists. Vince pointed out the geodetic marker placed into the outside wall of the depot by the National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a database of these reference points. Vince seemed especially pleased that someone thought the Lamy train station would be around for long enough to make it an appropriate reference point for the larger landscape.

When the Manhattan Project scientists arrived in Lamy, a specially designed car—a Plymouth sedan that had been extended limo-style—was waiting for them. The car is now at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. We’ll write a separate post about that museum, but the car is especially intriguing because it was almost lost forever. Someone saw the beat-up vehicle in a local junkyard and thought he recognized it. The serial numbers matched the records from the Manhattan Project, and the limo was restored, using photographs to match even the upholstery to its WWII look.

La Fonda Dining Room from above

From Lamy, the scientists were chauffered to Santa Fe, just under twenty miles away. They would drive past La Fonda, a destination hotel spot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail since 1607. The current building went up in 1921 and was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway three years later. The railway leased the hotel to Fred Harvey, and it remained a Harvey House until 1968. Once again, like she did for so many of the California, New Mexico, and Arizona Harvey Houses, Mary Colter designed the interior spaces to match her vision of the American West. We imagine scientists on their way to or from Los Alamos—or on a brief respite from The Hill—might sit at the bar or in the well-lighted dining room to talk about their ideas and enjoy the famous Harvey hospitality of that era. In fact, one day, a local widow was having lunch at La Fonda when a man in a porkpie hat approached her table and offered her a job to run an office just a couple of blocks away.

At the door of 109 E. Palace, 2008

As a result of that conversation, instigated by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the initial destination of an atomic scientist in Santa Fe was 109 E. Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, that local widow, welcomed every non-military individual associated with the Manhattan Engineer District to their new home in the middle of nowhere. McKibbin arranged for a scientist’s material goods to be delivered to Los Alamos, set up a bank account, gave each person an identification card, and informed every scientist that his new mailing address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sometimes, Oppenheimer would visit for martinis and a steak dinner. Occasionally, physicists would spend the night at her home on Old Pecos Road, leaving Dorothy’s son Kevin to sleep in the backyard.

A view into 109 E. Palace, 2011

Dorothy stayed on in her role for a couple of decades. Now, though, 109 E. Palace stands empty. We had been inside a few years earlier, when the place was a high-end linens shop. But when we were in Santa Fe at the end of May of this year, the property, once so crucial to the work at Los Alamos, was available for lease.

V.I.P. Limo for The Hill

After being heavily processed and lightly acclimated by Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe, the scientist would get back into that limo and head to Los Alamos, another 36 miles into the Jemez Mountains. Depending upon the weather, those three dozen miles could take as long as four hours. The vistas are breathtaking. We imagine the scientists gasped most audibly as they realized they were crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and might meet a military truck rushing steeply downhill toward them. The bridge is still there, off to the side and beneath the current highway running over the Rio Grande River.

Old One-lane Bridge over the Rio Grande

A military checkpoint greeted the scientists as they reached The Hill. Most scientists would then head to the assorted apartments, hutments, and barracks that had been hastily built for the rapid influx of personnel. Enrico Fermi lived in a nice stone building on 20th Street, Edward Teller lived in a smaller house with a shared driveway on 49th Street, and Richard Feynman took to bed in what was more like a dormitory for the men who didn’t bring wives with them. A few, including Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, lived in a lovely cottage on Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only residences with bathtubs. The street remains officially named Bathtub Row. That’s where Richard Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, lived from 1959-1995 and where the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum now stands.

Henry Cullen (wearing his Pullman conductor uniform) with his daughter

The Lofty duo has spent a good deal of time traveling this past year. These trips are fleeting glimpses of the past, rapid images of someone famous running to a distant gate, or the two of us dashing to pick up a rental car. How different it must have been to be a physicist in 1944, boarding The Chief in Chicago for somewhere new. Henry Cullen’s train took 49 hours, 49 minutes to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles and 47 hours, 24 minutes for the return trip. Those travelers spent two days bumping into strangers, some of whom were preparing to change the course of history. To walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists is to try to understand that time and its relationship to our own.

To go on to Part 3 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.

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