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This year, Los Alamos County marks the 60th anniversary of becoming a county.
Claiming status as a county sounds like such a simple thing, but, in truth, there was nothing simple about it.
Many of the “rights” that today’s independent-minded Los Alamos County citizens consider basic – voting in elections, owning a home with dependable utilities, having a County Council with real power – came agonizingly slowly, in a long, complex series of crises and decisions that reached to the very top of American government.
The ‘Secret City’
Los Alamos began as a secret city, deliberately located in an isolated area so that Manhattan Project scientists could create “The Gadget” – the atomic bomb, the weapon that ended World War II.
Originally, Los Alamos was truly a hardship assignment. People lived in tiny trailers and “Pacific Hutments” equipped with outside latrines “to reduce costs.” They coped with wood-burning stoves, water shortages, power shortages, and gas shortages.
Early photographs show that they sometimes had to wallow through knee-deep mud to get to their daily assignments.
Los Alamos residents were discouraged from going to Santa Fe in large groups for festive occasions because someone might ask where they lived. People had to make their own recreation – but then, they worked such long hours that there really wasn’t much time left for fun.
In her 1974 doctoral thesis, “Technically Sweet Los Alamos: The Development of a Federally Sponsored Scientific Community,” historian Marjorie Bell Chambers wrote:
“Life for civilians on the strange military post at Los Alamos was a far cry from the outside capitalist world. By the time housing had deteriorated to outdoor plumbing, the ideal community in the midst of a spectacular natural setting had become a shanty-town slum where lack of privacy created an emotionally charged atmosphere relieved only by public outbursts at the Town Council or in frenetic recreational activity.”
Chambers noted, “Censorship of mail, monitoring of telephone calls, restrictions on travel, and prohibition of family visitors became increasingly more annoying as time progressed. For some civilians, especially the Europeans, the security fence around the project reminded them of a Nazi concentration camp.”
There were some advantages, however. Medical care was free in the early days, and, perhaps as a result, the birth rate soared.
In August 1943, an elected Town Council replaced an earlier laboratory-appointed community council. The council was only advisory, but it wasn’t timid. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was the first chairman.
However, despite the fact that civilian complaints and suggestions were frequent – notably the angry responses to poor food and high prices in the commissary, and rage about the monitoring of coeducational visits in civilian dormitories – there was never any doubt that Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer and the post commanding officer (who reported to Gen. Leslie R. Groves) were in charge of the town.
Oppenheimer was in charge of the scientific program and “the maintenance of secrecy” by the civilian population. The post commanding officer was responsible for the performance of military personnel and the provision of “suitable living conditions” for the civilians in the community – a virtual United Nations of scientists and family members from all over the world.
When the war ended in 1945, some people thought the laboratory’s work was completed. Many of the Manhattan Project scientists moved back to consultant jobs, industry positions, and university posts in other states, leaving the community somewhat demoralized.
Norris Bradbury, successor to J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the laboratory, had a different point of view. Bradbury, Oppenheimer, and Groves all saw a continuing need for nuclear research in Los Alamos as the Cold War emerged from the ashes of World War II. In January 1946, Groves committed to community planning and permanent housing in Los Alamos.
In mid-May 1946, Bradbury issued his “tree-shaking” statement. He told the Manhattan Project people to “pack up and go, and we’ll pay your way home; otherwise, stay and get ... the big job ... done.” Los Alamos, he said, would be a “permanent installation.”
On Aug. 1, 1946, President Harry Truman signed the act creating the five-member Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). A new era had begun.
Many people did leave Los Alamos, but others decided to stay. Understandably, those who remained (and those who came later) wanted more amenities. They wanted dependable utilities and homes that they could buy or build on land they owned themselves. They wanted to vote in local, state, and national elections. And they wanted to control the future of their own community.
But while the future of Los Alamos was coming into focus, living conditions actually became worse for a while.
Residents persuaded Gen. Groves to remove wartime regulations requiring censorship of mail and banning of visitors from outside Los Alamos. But As New Year’s Day 1946 approached, the water and power situations became desperate.
Residents “were asked not to wash cars, to keep drinking water in the refrigerator to avoid running water until it was cool, to turn off the shower ‘while soaping,’ and to use a stopper in the wash basin.” Eventually, the authorities asked residents to stop taking daily showers.
The New Mexico Power Company had to cut back on the amount of power delivered to Los Alamos during daytime and early evening hours because of demands elsewhere in the state.
The community was concerned about potential fires.
During a Dec. 17, 1945, Town Council meeting, residents were informed that the temperature at the community’s water intake point had dropped to 22 degrees below zero, greatly complicating water delivery. Two days later, the pipes ran dry, and the post engineers began hauling in water by tank truck.
Chambers’ doctoral thesis comments, “There were no showers, no clean clothes, nor fancy dinners for Christmas 1945. On December 26 a hundred or more residents attended the Town Council meeting in the dining room of Fuller Lodge.”
The public’s frustration grew during a series of Town Council meetings that stretched well into January, but when Bradbury attended the Jan. 21, 1946, meeting and informed the council of Grove’s plans for the future, public anger subsided. By May, the drilling of two wells was under way.
The town’s water problems slowly faded away, but lasting solutions to power shortages stretched into 1948.
Then, in 1948, a gas failure in January during a season of sub-zero temperatures left many people without functioning furnaces. It was 1949 before completion of a gas pipeline to Los Alamos provided a real solution to the heating problem.
Little by little, however, Los Alamos residents won through.
In May 1946, 200 families were living in trailers; 137 in hutments without indoor plumbing; and the remainder were in temporary housing. There was a waiting list of 215 families. People were doubled up in dormitory rooms built for one person, and some female heads of family were separated from their children.
However, in that same year, master planning began. Gen. Groves was keeping his promise to make Los Alamos into a real community.
Western Area and the Community Center were planned, approved, and completed. They didn’t come easily, but they did come. Other housing developments followed. Physical conditions in the community were slowly getting better.
The ‘Right to Vote’
Civil rights, however, were still in limbo. The issue of traffic fines led to a question in the Town Council about whether residents of Los Alamos were citizens of New Mexico. No one had an answer at first. Eventually, the council determined that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction over Los Alamos. A U.S. Commissioner Court was formed to handle traffic violations here.
It appeared for some time that the Sandoval County clerk had the right to refuse to register voters from Los Alamos, and that the only possible solution would be through congressional legislation. People on the Hill complained vigorously about taxation without representation. Political considerations played a major role in this issue. Chambers’ thesis says:
“Political considerations were as important as constitutional ones in providing Los Alamos with representation in the state legislature. In the end the constitutional solution was only the first of many steps necessary to resolve the political issues. The first problem centered upon the political reality that the number of potential voters in Los Alamos was sufficient to swing an election in Sandoval County....”
The political problems were first recognized in the presidential election of 1944. Los Alamos Personnel Director David Dow divided potential voters into groups. Those whose names would “give away the project’s mission” were asked not to vote. Those who came from states with absentee ballots were asked to vote at home. And those who had New Mexico residency were told to register at the Sandoval County Courthouse in Bernalillo.
Five people registered successfully; then the Sandoval County Clerk said that no more registrations would be accepted from precinct 17, the former precinct for the Los Alamos Ranch School, because the land was now federally owned.
The resulting struggle takes up 50 pages of Chambers’ thesis. It involved a long list of politicians (from several different New Mexico counties and several states), the New Mexico Legislature, several courts – including the State Supreme Court, and two presidents. Basically, however, the following steps finally solved the problem:
• On March 4, 1949, President Truman signed a bill from Congress to “retrocede exclusive jurisdiction over Los Alamos lands to New Mexico.” The state wasted no time. On March 15, 1949, the governor of the State of New Mexico accepted jurisdiction for Los Alamos.
• On June 10, 1949, Los Alamos came into existence as a brand new city-county (and it is that anniversary that the county is celebrating this year), but major tasks remained. The Zia Company continued to perform numerous “housekeeping” functions, taking care of Los Alamos under a contract originally signed on April 1, 1946. Los Alamos weathered various scandals and jurisdictional disputes as it matured into a more normal community.
• On Sept. 28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill authorizing the AEC to dispose of its community real estate in Los Alamos, but it wasn’t until November 1964 that New Mexico voters approved an amendment to the State Constitution to allow Los Alamos to incorporate as a county. Los Alamos voters considered a proposed charter for the first time in February 1966, but rejected it.
• The tide turned, however, on June 24, 1967, when the AEC’s Los Alamos Area manager, Herman E. Roser, signed deeds and a bill of sale transferring AEC municipal property worth almost $17 million to Los Alamos County. Roser stood in front of the new white Los Alamos County Municipal Building and presented the “key to the city” to Dr. James E. Loucks, chairman of the County Commission, successor to the Town Council. Among those present, in addition to Dr. Loucks, were: his colleagues on the commission, Steve Stoddard and Martin Gursky (both of whom still live in Los Alamos County today); and state officials including Gov. David Cargo, Sen. Joseph Montoya, and Rep. E. S. “Johnny” Walker.
On Dec. 10, 1968, Los Alamos voters approved a compromise charter. The county was launched.
This article draws heavily on the doctoral thesis of the late, noted, local historian Marjorie Bell Chambers. We thank her widower, William H. Chambers, for allowing the use of her copyrighted document.