On January 27th,1951 the first above-ground atomic bomb was tested on American soil at the Nevada Proving Ground (aka the Nevada Test Site). Prior to that, atomic testing had been at the Bikini Atoll out in the south Pacific. But for a variety of reasons, the Atomic Energy Commission decided to bring the testing closer to home and Frenchman's Flat in southern Nevada, was chosen for the site.
The atomic age brought an influx of scientists and workers into Las Vegas. They became members of the community and raised their families here. However, unlike others, they could not talk about their jobs.
As part of the Classic Las Vegas history project, we did video histories with a wide swath of long-time and native born residents who had lived in Las Vegas for more than thirty years. We included Al O'Donnell, who came to Las Vegas as an atomic scientist in 1950, Marie McMillan who worked for EG&G at the Test Site, Don English who photographed the bomb blasts throughout the 1950s for the Las Vegas News Bureau and numerous residents who, as children, had been wakened by their parents in the wee hours of the morning to watch the blasts.
Sen. Richard Bryan, who was a teen at Las Vegas High School remembered the school's yearbook had a bomb blast on its cover (and that can be seen in his class' Senior Square at the front of the old high school). John Ullom remembered being on Fremont Street and feeling the bomb blast and just thinking "oh, must be another test." Carey Burke remembered one bomb blast where the shockwave broke the plate glass windows of downtown department store. Emmett Sullivan remembered being invited out to the Test Site to see a bomb blast and recalled "it was all the colors of the rainbow."
Don English, above, remembered how difficult it was to photograph the blasts while wearing the googles that protected his eyes from the searing white light. One morning he overslept and did not have time to get to News Nob. He hurried downtown as he figured he could get the shot from atop one of the buildings.
The photo he took that morning made the cover of Life Magazine.
If you are, like me, of a certain age, atomic testing (both above-ground and below-ground testing) was part of growing up in Las Vegas. My elementary school, Rose Warren in Charleston Heights, had an air-raid signal on the roof. It was tested every Saturday morning at noon. If it went off at any other time, we were taught to duck and cover.
I remember one blast (below ground) that was so strong that it broke the display window at Woolco on West Charleston (where Walmart is today).
What memories do you have of the Test Site and atomic testing?
FYI, want to learn more atomic testing and Las Vegas? Many of those we interviewed are featured in our DVD "The Story of Classic Las Vegas" talking about that era.