Life During the War
The absence of grass and the absence of strangers were what physicist Edward Teller said he recalled most about living at Los Alamos.
Newcomers found a ramshackle town of temporary buildings scattered helter-skelter over the landscape.
Pre-war Los Alamos
Before 1942, Los Alamos was the site of an exclusive boys school and a few homesteads. Ranch School property included 27 houses, dormitories and other living quarters, and 27 miscellaneous buildings all sitting atop the Pajarito Plateau - a high desert mesa cut by deep canyons into long finger-like extensions. After the U.S. Army acquired the Ranch School property and about 54,000 surrounding acres owned primarily by the Forest Service, Los Alamos went up like a boomtown.
The school's handsome stone and log buildings, which served as Project Y headquarters and general meeting areas, were quickly obscured by mushrooming construction. Hurriedly built Laboratory buildings, rows of barracks, apartments, Quonset huts, government trailers, and prefabricated units created an unsightly assortment of accommodations that lined row upon row of nameless, unpaved streets. New Mexico soft coal fueled the town's furnaces, and soot and dust from the streets fell in endless layers on every surface. Winter snows and summer rains left streets and yards mired in mud.
As a community, Los Alamos was atypical. The population was homogeneous; most people were in their 20s or 30s, healthy, and middle-class. Unemployment did not exist. Despite the informality of the place, it was not, as former resident Ruth Marshak remembered, a caste-less society. Employees' ranking in the Laboratory dictated their social standing as well as the quality of their housing was determined by one's position in the Laboratory. This fact came as a surprise to one Navy captain, who saw one of his senior officers slighted in housing when a junior officer with scientific credentials named Norris Bradbury, was given better quarters. Senior Laboratory officials occupied "Bathtub Row" homes previously used by schoolmasters and the only domiciles in Los Alamos with bathtubs. The name has stuck to this day.
Water, or the lack of it, was a constant problem. Soldiers hand-delivered bulletins with precise instructions on water use: "Leaking faucets should be reported immediately. Watering of lawns and gardens is forbidden. Toilet bowls should not be flushed in play. And bodies should be soaped before entering the shower," a ceremony, resident Jane Wilson noted, "which could be disastrous if the water didn't come on."
For ordinary civilians, military security took some getting used to. Laboratory members were allowed only limited personal contact with relatives and could not to travel more than 100 miles from Los Alamos. A chance encounter with a friend outside the Project had to be reported in detail to the security force. Security personnel censored outgoing mail and monitored long-distance calls. Incoming mail was addressed simply to"P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico." Birth certificates of infants born at Los Alamos during the war even listed P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth. A high barbed wire fence surrounded the community, and mounted guards patrolled the rugged outer boundaries.
An Interesting Predicament
The homogeneity of the community led to some interesting problems. Because so many scientists brought spouses and young children to the site, the need for a school ranked in importance with the need for a new physics laboratory. The relative youth of the inhabitants also led to a baby boom. In the first year of the project, 80 babies were born; by 1945 Los Alamos had more than 330 infants. The housing demand quickly exceeded the housing supply, and by mid-1944 the Governing Board of the Laboratory gave serous thought to limiting future hiring to singles. Los Alamos was also atypical in that it was the only Army post in the United States that housed civilians on a permanent basis. And unlike any other Army base, this one was predominantly civilian.
To partially overcome some of the tensions between the Army and the civilians, residents created a Town Council. Early council member Alice Kimball Smith recalled, "According to its bylaws, the Town Council had magnificent powers embodied in a kind of general welfare clause for the mesa, but its efforts were always circumscribed by the hard fact that we lived on an Army post."
Smith remembers that the Council handled an assortment of topics, including snapping dogs, inadequate restaurant facilities, requests for a shoe-repair service on the Hill, changes in movie schedules, and overcrowding in public laundries.
Residents relax at the PX Soda Fountain
Los Alamos had two movie theaters. One showed movies every night; the other showed movies three nights a week. The latter doubled as a chapel on Sunday mornings, and members of the congregation found themselves sweeping up popcorn and other litter before the services began.
Enrico Fermi's wife, Laura, reminisced that "we had no telephones and we ran around a lot. We gave large parties, cooking on rudimentary appliances. We rushed to Santa Fe for anything that was not food or the little else that the Army could sell."
"Whenever things went wrong, and that was often," another resident said, "we always had our mountains - the Jemez on one side, the Sangre de Cristos on the other." A lot of residents kept horses and rode the rugged countryside.
One resident recalled that "the Hill dwellers were amateur everything: hikers, riders, photographers, ethnographers, mineralogists, musicians, and artists-craftsmen in all assorted fields. Saturday nights they partied and square danced. Sundays they fished or exploited their hobbies."
The parties were frequent and well attended. Resident Jean Bacher recalled that "Saturday nights, the mesa rocked. . . fenced in as we were, our social life was a pipeline through which we let off steam."
A lot of foreigners lived on the mesa, including Poles, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians. The British Mission, a group of top-flight British scientists sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to aid American scientists, arrived in the summer of 1944. Members of the British Mission hosted a huge bash to celebrate the success of the Trinity test.
In spite of the military rule, the isolation, and the mud, most early residents have fond memories of Los Alamos. Kathleen Mark wrote: "When one considers that we lived. . . closely packed together - aware of every detail of our neighbors' lives - even what they were having for dinner every night - one can't help but marvel that we enjoyed each other so much."
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Laboratory's first director, summed up what most residents felt when he reported, "Almost everyone knew that this job, if it were achieved, would be a part of history. This sense of excitement, of devotion, and of patriotism in the end prevailed."
Cost of Living in Los Alamos
Medical Facilities and Activities for 1943-1944
Nobel Laureate Emilio Segre files a complaint about his heating system
Abuse of Government Buildings and Property
General Groves to Captain Parsons
50th Anniversary Article: