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Common Questions For Los Alamos History Museum

on December 7, 2017 - 7:59am
Gen. Leslies Groves thought Los Alamos would be easy to guard, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer loved the inspiring vistas. Courtesy photo
 
By HEATHER MCCLENAHAN
Los Alamos Historical Society
 
There are two common questions that visitors ask at the Los Alamos History Museum. Why was Los Alamos chosen for the Manhattan Project? and How did Bathtub Row get its name?
 
Those popular questions aren’t just from out-of- town visitors; they often come from our own residents, so here are the answers.
 
Los Alamos was an ideal location for a top-secret laboratory for the Manhattan Project. Gen. Leslie Groves, the military director for the project, required the site be at least 600 miles inland because he didn’t want it subjected to German or Japanese naval attack. Los Alamos not only met that requirement, it had nice weather for much of the year, which proved to be a bonus.
 
The general also wanted a site that was easy to guard. Los Alamos had—and still has—only one road on the east leading to Santa Fe and one road on the west leading to the Jemez Mountains. The steep cliffs that rise abruptly from the Rio Grande made it easy for military police to determine who was coming and who was going. Also need was a nearby workforce, but not one that was too close. The then-small towns of Española and Santa Fe and the pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and San Juan (Ohkay Owingeh) proved just right.
 
General Groves knew that good transportation would be essential to receiving the equipment the project needed. The train station at Lamy and the highway through Santa
Fe would serve.
 
Finally, the icing on the cake was an infrastructure of electricity, running water, and housing for the scientists and other workers. The Los Alamos Ranch School, with its fortuitous dining hall (Fuller Lodge), met all of those needs. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, believed the stunning vistas across the Rio Grande Valley and the backdrop of the Jemez Mountains would provide grand inspirations for his scientists, many of whom came from scenic regions of Europe. (A myth floating around the internet and elsewhere states that Oppenheimer attended the Los Alamos Ranch School. He did not, though he had spent time in New Mexico and loved the scenery and culture. He was thrilled to be able to combine his love of New Mexico with his love of physics.)
 
To answer the second question about the unique name of our historic street, the log and stone cottages from the Los Alamos Ranch School, constructed in the 1920s and 30s, generally had bathtubs. When the army and its contractors began erecting housing for the Manhattan Project on the plateau in 1943, they built barracks, dormitories, apartments, Quonset huts, and other temporary structures.
 
Bathtubs in those days were made of iron and coated in ceramic materials. Because iron was needed for the war effort, such tubs were hard to come by. In addition, plumbing for showers in the wartime rush was easier than plumbing for bathtubs, so the army built everything with showers.
 
The upper level scientists and military personnel lived in the Ranch School cottages, the only homes in town with bathtubs. In her book, Atoms in the Family, Laura Fermi explains that Alice Kimball Smith, wife of metallurgist Cyril Smith, started calling the street Bathtub Row. Whether meant as a compliment or an insult, the name stuck!
 
After the war, the Atomic Energy Commission laid out a grid for Los Alamos and called the road 20 th Street. Even though that’s what the street signs said, no one in town called it that.
 
Finally, in 2007, the Los Alamos County Council voted to officially change the name to Bathtub Row—and put up the street signs to prove it.
 
For more information on these and other historical topics, visit the Los Alamos History Museum, the address of which is 1050 Bathtub Row.

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