The same issues have faced all the atomic development sites used in the Manhattan Project, with Hancock, Washington faring the worst. I learn in Albuquerque's National Museum of Nuclear Science and History that Hancock continued manufacturing nuclear warheads for decades. It eventually got the dubious distinction of being the most daunting and expensive environmental clean–up project in U.S. history. Still, the museum tries to show us that if we could just get past the thorny disposal issue, nuclear power could solve most of our energy problems. A giant display illustrates how much hydro, wind, or solar power it takes to equal one nuclear reactor and when you put it in those terms, a split atom is a powerful force indeed, no emissions required.
Nobody knew much about radioactivity dangers in the early days, so I'm curious about the health of those who worked on the A–bombs' development. "Well, the guy who ran this place lived into his 90s," says Fred Strohl, the media relations guide who is taking me through the X–10 Graphite Reactor building. Fred shows me a framed photo of the director at work in the early 1940s. "You can see here that's he's smoking a pipe. Almost everyone smoked then and that's what usually got the people who died early, not radiation exposure."
In Los Alamos, at least there was already a place for the scientists and their families to live and work: a boys' boarding school that could be commandeered for the project.
Oak Ridge had to be built from scratch, so trains arrived with prefab housing that went up at a frenetic pace. Children would come home from school and not be able to find their own house: At one point small homes were going up at the rate of 32 per day. I walk into one of these "Flat Top" houses on display at the American Museum of Science and Energy, complete with its plywood desk, low ceilings, and 1940s kitchen. In the children's museum in town there's a Flat Top replica section inside, stocked with period furniture, magazines, and kitchen appliances.
All this rapid clearing and construction led to a muddy mess. One night I'm fortunate enough to meet Colleen Black, one of the city's original residents, at the Flatwater Grill restaurant overlooking a tranquil waterway with a crew boat race course. She remembers wearing muddy boots every day and having to improvise recipes, doing without certain foods that were rationed, but she recalls the period as a magic time when an instant city was full of youngsters. "There was only one funeral home there the whole time and it went out of business," she says. "Hardly anyone died because the population was so young."
The hospital wasn't all that busy either. "No cars were being made in wartime, so there weren't many vehicles around. Everyone walked or took the bus so there were hardly any accidents." At the local shops I see an array of books that delve into this period, with titles like At Work in the Atomic City and the recipe book Cooking Behind the Fence.
Through it all, the three facilities dedicated to the Manhattan Project remained a secret, a concept unfathomable in today's environment of oversharing and hyper–communication. Could 75,000 people today really work for years in a city that stays a secret? Could a bus station serve 22 million people in one year without anyone hearing about it?
Residents were reminded at every turn though that keeping their lips sealed was a patriotic duty and the difference between winning the war and losing it. Oak Ridge billboards contained sayings such as "Keep mum about your job," "Watch your step off the job too," and "Loose talk helps our enemy."
Los Alamos and Oak Ridge are still odd places, full of brainy workers involved in projects most of us aren't supposed to know about and probably wouldn't quite understand if we did. But now you can find them on a map—and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter too.
If you go:
The American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge provides history and context on the Manhattan Project and is also the place to arrange tours (summer only) of historic structures in the restricted zone.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History moved into a grand new Albuquerque facility in 2009 and has great historic exhibits, a hands–on "Little Albert's Lab" area, and an outdoor display area with a B–52 bomber.
Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos
Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 3rd edition). He is co-author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.
Historic black and white photos are from James Westcott, who got the job documenting the Manhattan Project's progress and the life of the residents when he was only 19. Others by Tim Leffel.
Unbalanced in the Sinking City by Tim Leffel
Born in the USA: an Apple, a Taco, and a Doctor's Soda Syrup by Chris Epting
Strange Sensations in Iceland by Tim Leffel
Other United States, Canada, and the Caribbean travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: