Walk in the Footsteps of Scientific & Creative Giants in Los Alamos, New Mexico


by Debbie Stone


With film award season around the bend, Director Christoper Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is guaranteed to get numerous nominations. If the movie has sparked your curiosity, head to Los Alamos, NM, where the true stories depicted in the show actually played out in history.

This small, northern New Mexico town on the Pajarito Plateau was home to exceptional physicists, scientists, engineers, and support personnel for several years during WWII. Remote and naturally beautiful, it was the ideal site for the Manhattan Project. This project was focused on designing and building the first atomic weapons of war. Los Alamos was just one part of the project, where the actual engineering of the bomb(s) was done and where it was tested. Other project sites, such as Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN were involved in different aspects.

A self-guided tour of Los Alamos should include several museums and historic locations, some of which Christopher Nolan used to shoot scenes for his film.

Start at the Los Alamos History Museum. The main building, known as the guest cottage, is circa 1918. It was built by the Los Alamos Ranch School and is the oldest continually used building in town. It was first the infirmary before being used as guest quarters for parents visiting students at the boarding school. During the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves coopted it as his home away from home when he came to Los Alamos.

The museum takes you on a journey from the Pajarito Plateau’s Ancestral Pueblo people to its homestead history, through the Ranch School era and the Manhattan Project period, to the present. It’s chockful of exhibits detailing the lives of people who resided in the area over the centuries. There are artifacts, documents, photos, and audio and video recordings of personal stories.

One exhibit is devoted to the Los Alamos Ranch School, a small, elite, prep program geared towards the sons of wealthy men, many from the East Coast. Founder Ashley Pond sought to make the ranch an “outdoor school,” to offer boys an opportunity to gain health, strength, and self-confidence. The school was known for its rigorous education and outdoor experience. It was run as a Boy Scout troop and was actually the first equestrian scout group in the country. Each student was given responsibility for his own horse upon arrival at the school.

The school existed from 1917 until the U.S. Army bought its land in 1942 for the Manhattan Project. The fact that the ranch’s existing buildings could be used for immediate housing, along with its location in a sparsely populated area plus its good water supply, were primary factors in the recommendation of the site for the project’s central headquarters.

Another exhibit features the Manhattan Project, with a detailed timeline, short film, and plenty of artifacts. Here you will be introduced to General Groves, the primary military leader of the project, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Scientific Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory.

General Groves steered the construction of the Pentagon in D.C. and then was assigned the biggest Allied secret project of WWII, code name “Manhattan Project.” He tapped Dr. Oppenheimer, a world-class physicist and professor at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech, to be the Laboratory Director of Project Y of the Manhattan Project. Groves’ command of the growth of the town for a quickly ballooning workforce (more than 6,000 scientists and personnel, and their families) and its needs were vital to winning the wartime race to build the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer, though, was the one who guided the researchers to their success with his leadership skills, persuasive abilities, dedication, intellect, and passion for scientific inquiry. You’ll learn plenty of fascinating details about this complex and enigmatic man – his background, character and temperament, personal life, inner turmoil, and more within the museum’s exhibit.  

Oppenheimer was able to justify developing the world’s first atomic bomb because he was so sure the Nazis were working on nuclear weapons and would use them for diabolical purposes. And he was initially ecstatic when it was employed on Hiroshima. However, his disposition drastically changed only a month later when he met President Truman and told him, “I have blood on my hands.”

The exhibit also presents information about Oppenheimer’s life post-Manhattan Project. Suffice it to say, it was a downward trajectory for a man who had been at the nexus of it all. Oppenheimer became an academic exile, cut off from his once brilliant career, while never quite being able to get over the revulsion he felt towards what he had helped to achieve. He died quietly at the age of 62.

Continue your visit with a stroll along Bathtub Row. The street was given this nickname because it had well-built homes with bathtubs, unlike most of the hastily constructed housing that other employees lived in. Such an amenity was rare and reserved for the highest-ranking members of the Manhattan Project.

Stop at the Oppenheimer House at the end of the road. Though you can’t go inside the log and stone structure, peek in the windows and see how Hollywood decked out the home to depict it as it was when Oppenheimer lived there with his wife and children from 1943 to 1945. The house is now owned by the Los Alamos Historical Society, which has plans to restore it and make it part of the Los Alamos History Museum.

Story has it that Oppenheimer was not only a visionary scientist, but also a consummate party host. He was known to throw a great party and an invitation to one of his dinners was highly coveted within the close-knit Los Alamos community. Attendees enjoyed kicking back and taking a break from their top-secret work, while Oppenheimer tended bar. Often fellow scientists would play music, adding to the festive ambiance.

Make sure you check out the Hans Bethe House, also a part of the Los Alamos History Museum. Dr. Bethe was a brilliant German physicist, who moved to the U.S. to avoid anti-Semitic persecution in Nazi Germany. Dr. Oppenheimer recruited him from Cornell University to head up the Theoretical Division of the project.

Bethe’s residence is now home to the Harold Agnew Cold War Gallery, which delves into the seventy-plus years of Cold War history of the Los Alamos community and the Los Alamos Laboratory through a series of artifacts and exhibits. There are scientist profiles, even a Nobel Prize on display, models of atomic weapons and a recreated living room and kitchen from the 1950s.

Step back further in history with a visit to the nearby Romero cabin. One of the earliest homesteader cabins on the Pajarito Plateau, this dwelling was the property of Refugio and Victor Romero. The couple built the place in 1913 on nearby Pajarito Mesa, where they lived and raised their family. They, like their neighbors back then, farmed the land for many years until 1942 when they had to abandon their homesteads due to the Manhattan Project. In 1985, the cabin was moved to its present location and was restored to become a part of the Los Alamos History Museum’s campus.

And for a real flash to the past, walk over to the Ancestral Pueblo Dwellings, a site that was home to a group of Tewa-speaking people around roughly 1225 CE. They were known to build structures in the canyons and atop the mesas with tuff – volcanic ash. All that remains today are some foundation blocks. Use your imagination to envision a few families residing here in a structure that had bedrooms, kitchens, storage rooms, and a ceremonial area.

Within the same complex of buildings is the must-see Fuller Lodge. Designed by well-known Southwestern architect John Gaw Meem and constructed in 1928, the lodge was the dining hall and recognizable symbol for the Los Alamos Ranch School. Later, this majestic, three-story log building served as a community center for Manhattan Project employees, as well as provided rooms and meals for visiting scientists. Imagine the Nobel Prize winners and winners-to-be who ate many a meal in this place!

Fuller Lodge has played an important role in the town over the years and today it continues to be a gathering place and cultural hub for the community. The building is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places and registered as a New Mexico Cultural Property.

The artwork in the lodge is notable for including period lighting, furniture, and drapery accents, as well as historical artifacts and original wall pieces. Such work represents both local and regional artisans in a variety of media, including traditional northern New Mexico weavings and oil, ink, and watercolor landscapes. Upstairs are a few furnished rooms that are open to the public. They represent the style of accommodations that were used at the time.

On the south lawn of the lodge is the pair of famed sculptures depicting Dr. Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. The bronze statues were done by Santa Fe artist Susanne Verte and were created to honor the legacy of these two men.  

To learn about the history, past and present, of Los Alamos Laboratory, head to the Bradbury Science Museum, just a few blocks away. You’ll find enlightening films and interactive exhibits that not only detail the history of the Manhattan Project (with a wall of who’s who pics), but also shine a light on the Lab’s current and prior research projects relating to defense and technology, economics, the environment and political and social concerns. The museum, in my opinion, offers a balanced and provocative view of such controversial topics as atomic weapons and nuclear power.

Visitors can experiment with lasers, learn about DNA fingerprinting, witness research that’s being done in different types of energy, from solar and geothermal to fission and fusion, see full-size models of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs, and more. Even if you’re not a science buff, you’ll find much that grabs your attention and sparks your curiosity.

Don’t forget to include the Main Gate during your visit to Los Alamos. The building is a re-creation of the historic security gate all Manhattan Project workers passed through when entering Los Alamos. Before reaching the gate, all newcomers to Project Y had to go through Dorothy McKibbin. Known as the gatekeeper of Los Alamos, McKibbin was hired as Dr. Oppenheimer’s assistant in Santa Fe. She was the all-encompassing meet and greet individual, responsible for numerous duties, including organizing housing and issuing security and I.D. passes to the workers.

If you were a first-timer, it was a challenge getting to Los Alamos back then. You would get off the train in Lamy, New Mexico, then make your way to McKibbin’s office in Santa Fe. There you would get your paperwork and official documents for passage through the guard gate, and of course, you would have to sign a form pledging silence about the project. Finally, you would be sent onward for an arduous two-hour trip to Los Alamos, or “the Hill” as it was called.

Secrecy in the Manhattan Project was tantamount and extraordinary measures were taken to ensure that no one without proper clearance was allowed access to site buildings. Security checkpoints were guarded night and day, barbed wire fences surrounded the facilities and all mail coming in or going out was inspected and censored. At all the sites, signs warned workers to protect the project’s secrets: “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here!” Secrecy was so complete that many employees didn’t know what they were working on until they heard about the bombing of Hiroshima on the radio.

Take time during your visit to appreciate the scenery that surrounds Los Alamos. The views of the Sangre de Cristos, the Jemez Mountains, and the Rio Grande Valley are breathtaking.


Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.



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