Life in Los Alamos
Ranch School Becomes Project Site
Before 1942, Los Alamos was the site of an exclusive boys school, called the Ranch 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 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.
Young, Healthy Workforce
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. Senior Laboratory officials occupied "Bathtub Row" homes, which were previously used by schoolmasters and the only domiciles in Los Alamos with bathtubs. The name has stuck to this day.
For ordinary civilians, military security took some getting used to. Laboratory members were allowed only limited personal contact with relatives and could not 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.
Baby Boom and Housing Shortage
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 serious thought to limiting future hiring to singles.
Civilian Military Post Creates Tensions
Los Alamos was 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.
Work That Made History
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."