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Getting to White Rock: From a construction town to a community

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By The Staff

After World War II, as Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory gradually became a permanent facility, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had contractors build a sequence of residential areas.

Take a look at the list of housing units built in the 1940s and ‘50s, eliminate those that were later demolished, and a compendium of familiar residential names remains: 352 “Western Area Original Houses” were built in 1947, and so were 251 “Denver Steel” units; 150 “Modified Western Houses” and 92 “Chapel Apartments” were built in 1948; six “Lustron Houses” and 584 “Group 11” homes in North Community were built in 1949; 442 “Group 12” houses in North Community were built in 1950; 182 “Group 13s” and 152 “Group 14-As” were built in North Community in 1951; 37 “Group 15s” and 56 “Group 14-Bs” were built in North Community in 1952; 120 “Group 16s” were built in 1954 and 1955; and 96 “Group 17s” and 225 “Group 18s” were built in 1956 and 1957.

There was always a housing shortage.

A vital (and surprisingly entertaining) handbook from the early days, “Los Alamos Housing, a Manual of Housing Information for Employees and Supervisors of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory,” describes what it was like in Los Alamos in those days:

“…The terrain, wet or dry, bristled with planks with the nails sticking up, with shavings and glass and lumber and debris from the constant construction.

“The hospital had a lot of patients who fell victim to the terrain, especially to the ditches which often appeared unannounced, usually at sundown …. Only those who lived here during the war years can appreciate how rapid was the change and how intense the activity.

It was possible to get lost going home from work because so many changes had been made during the day. New buildings popped up like stage sets ….”

Many of those 1940s and 1950s houses remain today. They have been modified, painted, and landscaped in hundreds of different ways, but beneath it all, they are still the “old government houses” that a handful of contractors built so well for the AEC.

White Rock I:

A construction town

In White Rock, it was different.

In a series of articles in “Los Alamos Turns 50, a Retrospective,” published by the Los Alamos Monitor on March 28, 1999, writers Nancy Wurden and Allen N. Herring III said that the original White Rock was a temporary community established primarily for the families of construction workers who were building a permanent community “on the Hill.”

The AEC provided $4.5 million in 1949 for a White Rock community that eventually included 411 prefabricated homes, 197 trailer spaces, 21 dormitories, and various shops and necessities.

There were even two schools—“Little Sagebrush,” which served kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students, and White Rock Elementary, which held grades three through eight.

Elizabeth Aiello – one of the scheduled panel members for a lecture on the history of White Rock this year – taught fifth and sixth grades at the elementary school.

However, by 1959, the 2,000 people who had lived in White Rock had moved on. The community became a ghost town, and all of the buildings were demolished or hauled away.

The birth of White Rock II

As time wore on, the families crammed into the small, nearly identical homes on the Hill became a source of pent-up demand for something newer, better, and more individual in the way of housing.

In 1959, the AEC published a survey intended to give “every prospective home builder an opportunity to express his interest in the development of the White Rock area for private housing.” There were more than 200 responses.

The Los Alamos office of the AEC submitted a proposal for a housing development in White Rock, and Washington approved it in December 1959.

Development of the land came to a jolting halt at one point, however, because the director of the Federal Housing Authority in Albuquerque said that FHA insurance for mortgages on homes in the White Rock development wouldn’t be extended.

Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, D-N.M., took a hand, and in September 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill that opened the way for development to begin.

In January 1961, the AEC chose the Noxon Construction Co. as the architect and builder of White Rock.

The Campaign

for ‘ranches’

Subsequently, a group of citizens began investigating the possibilities for small “ranches.” By 1964, there was a “Pajarito Acres Development Association.” John Taylor—still a resident of Pajarito Acres today—served as president. The other members were John Balagna, Dee Wilson, Toni Groos, William “Bill” Deal and John Ramsay.

It wasn’t easy, but by the summer of 1966, the development work was done.

Meanwhile, early residents fought for everything from dependable utilities service to a voting district.

Wurden and Herring noted in their White Rock stories that, “…In 1964, the residents of White Rock had a 100 percent voter turnout at Piñon Elementary School, which had been built that year at a cost of about $600,000.”

There were muddy streets and barren yards—just as there had been in Los Alamos in the ‘40s. Marian Hyatt told Wurden and Herring that after replanting three times and watching rain wash out her seed each time, she finally used feed sacks to hold her grass seed in place. Her sacks were passed on to a succession of neighbors until they finally disintegrated.

Gradually, White Rock, Pajarito Acres—and, finally, La Senda—grew into the communities we know today, but their neighborhoods have a different “feel” than those in early-day Los Alamos. There are no “old government houses ….”

The people, then and now, are proud of White Rock.

Memories….

In a recent interview, Mary Mariner recalled how delighted she and her husband, Joe, and their children were to leave their home on 36th Street off Diamond and move to Pajarito Acres.

“We wanted space,” she said. And she very much appreciated the opportunity to have her own design. “I got everything I wanted,” she said with a smile.

The process began with public meetings to plan the area, she said. Then surveying began; lots were marked out; roads appeared; and finally, the home construction started. “There were only dirt roads when we first moved in,” she said. “There were very few trees …. Many of the people would go up into the mountains and dig their trees (after getting Department of Energy permits).”

 “We were about the third house to build down there,” she said. A contractor—“Mr. Garrett”—built the Mariners’ home, and for more than 40 years now the family has been pleased with it.

Looking back on the early days, Mary recalled that John Taylor and his wife, Nita, were building at about the same time that the Mariner home was going in. The new homes started “right around us,” she said, and then “spread out everywhere.”

“I had to start planning some flowers,” she said, reflecting her roots in Tennessee. “I planted irises all the way down my driveway and around in front of the house. We planted a vegetable garden for the boys.”

The first thing her youngest son wanted to do was to have a picnic under the piñon trees, put down a cloth, and catch nuts. They raised chickens, rabbits, and dogs. Some of their neighbors bought horses and put in bridle trails.

And, “We had all kinds of wildlife running through our land then,” she recalled. She remembered seeing coyotes, cougars, bobcats, bear, foxes, snakes, elk, deer, hawks, and golden and bald eagles.

Perhaps the best thing was that, “Everybody knew everybody.” Most of the residents had young families. “We would picnic (in Pajarito Acres) quite a few times a year,” she said. “I loved it.”