In the Footsteps (Part 3)

To read Part 1, click HERE.

To read Part 2, click HERE.

In Changing Light, Nora  Gallagher’s sparse novel of love and loss in New Mexico during the Manhattan Project, the author describes a chance encounter with a raven:

“She heard a deep croaking sound and looked up. When she had walked out on this land for the first time, she had heard that sound and looked at her feet for a frog—midwestern girl. But then she realized the croaking came from a tree. A frog caught in a tree? She imagined a frog tethered to the trunk of a pinion, drying out in the sun. Then she saw the raven sitting on a branch; he pumped his chest and sounded like a bullfrog.”

Fuller Lodge

We visited the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum for the first time in the summer of 2007. Doug was attending the Particle Accelerator Conference in Albuquerque, and we tacked on a few days to the end of the trip to visit Santa Fe and Los Alamos. We were grateful for the cool air of the high desert, an easy twenty-degree drop in temperature from the deep baking of Albuquerque. As soon as we got out of our rental car, we heard that bullfrog-like croak. We’d both finished reading Changing Light in the weeks before the trip, and we somehow knew to look up into the tall pine to locate an ink-black raven, large and only too proud to claim responsibility for the guttural sound.

When we made our way to Los Alamos at the end of last month, we returned for another visit of the Historical Society Museum.  Like the raven in Changing Light, Los Alamos and its role in the Manhattan Project is a topic about which we’d read and watched documentaries. The Historical Society is located on Los Alamos’ famous Bathtub Row, the street so named during the early days of the Manhattan Project because its houses were the only ones in town (in the very beginning, Los Alamos wasn’t even a town, just a smattering of buildings) with bathtubs.

Pueblo Dwelling, Bandelier National Monument

The earliest residents of the Pajarito Plateau inhabited the region long before the exigencies of war brought the Manhattan Project’s eclectic collection of scientists, engineers, and soldiers to the area. Between 1175 and 1250, the Pueblo peoples began to settle the area. The Tewa and Keres from what’s now Arizona were the first in the area, and other groups arrived later. A vast array of cliff dwellings can be seen at Bandelier National Monument, where we hiked on two separate occasions during last month’s visit to New Mexico. One of our hikes, to the kiva nestled in the natural stone cutout of the Alcove House, required firm grip and steady foot to negotiate the system of ladders and narrow pathways. In the end, the breathtaking vista of the canyon from atop the kiva made any qualms about the climb seem silly, insignificant.

Nearer in time to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, by 1887, the railroad was close enough that homesteaders began to dot the region. Only two of the homesteading cabins remain. One has been moved to the Historical Society, which restored the cabin for its grand opening last year.

The boys and men of the Ranch School

The Los Alamos Historical Society Museum itself sits next to Fuller Lodge, a large, wooden building that predates the nuclear weapons laboratory work of the 1940s. In fact, the museum chronicles the Los Alamos Ranch School, started by Ashley Pond in 1917 to offer boys with health problems a lifestyle that would make them stronger adults. In those years, Fuller Lodge was the Big House, where asthmatic and otherwise peaked boys attended classes, ate together, and slept on the open-air, wrap-around porch even in winter. As students, the boys all belonged to the Boy Scouts, Los Alamos Troop 22, and learned horseback riding along with academic subjects. Among its graduates was author Gore Vidal, John S. Reed (president of the Santa Fe railroad), Frederick Pullman (President of Northern Trust), and Bill Veeck (owner of the Chicago White Sox, perhaps most famous for Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park). Beat Generation figure William S. Burroughs attended the school as well, but he left without graduating.

The museum’s inclusion of the location’s pre-atomic eras—and the Native Americans, homesteaders, and boys at the Ranch School—reminded us that when one walks in the footsteps of others, they, too, have walked in others’ footsteps.

In 1942, General Leslie Groves decided the Manhattan Engineer District needed a central laboratory, and the project’s scientific director J. Robert Oppenhiemer suggested Los Alamos after having spent considerable time in the remote, mountainous desert area of New Mexico. The Ranch School was told to hurry up the schoolyear (the school graduated its final class in February, 1943, after an abbreviated calendar) and was paid $225 per acre for their property. The homesteaders, on the other hand, were paid only $7-15 per acre, a fact that came out later and, in 2004, led to a Congressional fund set up to more fairly compensate those former residents.

Original chair from the Manhattan Project

The museum puts its emphasis squarely on the lived experiences of the lab’s inhabitants in the war years, leaving the technical side of the development of the atomic bomb to the nearby Bradbury Museum. The Historical Society is filled with photos of Manhattan Project denizens going through their frenetic paces. Leisure activities are a favorite subject in photos: dances, ballgames, and mealtimes. Artifacts that fulfilled useful purposes in their lives—a jukebox and chairs from the PX—fill one exhibit. Surviving pieces of one of the original guardhouses, the gatekeeper’s portal to a place that was sometimes known as Shangri-La, serves as a useful reminder that The Hill (another nickname for the laboratory) was a military outpost with all of the secrecy and regimentation that that entails.

Los Alamos Security Badges

The guardhouse exhibit, replete with numerous security badges from the Manhattan Project, also functions as a useful locus for anecdotes about how the civilians bridled under military routine. One famous scientist replaced the photo on his badge with that of dog; the switch went undetected for sometime. A young woman who worked in the Tech Area took to placing her badge on the back pocket of her jeans. When stopped by a guard and admonished, she’s reputed to have told the guard that was where he was looking anyway when she walked by, so she was just trying to make his job easier.

Artifacts from the Tech Area

Eventually, the Los Alamos Historical Society will open the Oppenheimer House, labeled T-111, to the public. It’s a cottage built in the late 1920s with a living room, study, kitchen, and sleeping porch. The original kitchen was turned into a dining room, which the Oppenheimers considered a must-have, and a new kitchen was added. Much of the original detail—the furnace, the kitchen counters and cabinets, the fireplaces—remains. The house already belongs to the Historical Society, but its current residents, who arrived in Los Alamos in 1945 and moved into the Oppenheimer House in 1956, can live there indefinitely.

As we think about what it means to walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists, we wonder how the addition of the Oppenheimer House will add to and shift the story. Historic landmarks offer us a way to understand a time by attaching it to a place. The objects in the places suggest the past lives lived, as if they are traces of actual people now gone. These places of historical significance become ways of interpreting history and of understanding how we came to be who we are as a community.


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