A lot of people see the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas Strip and don’t realize the critical role we’ve played in world history. A history that not only shaped this city, but is still accessible to those who visit today. Vegas is intertwined with the development, testing and disposal of the atom bomb, nuclear weaponry and waste. And as the world marks the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we look at Vegas’ role in the atomic age.
Those in Vegas during the atomic heyday would gather together for viewing parties of the bomb testing. Similar to what we do when there’s a big fight or game on TV. For locals, it was pretty common to pull lawn chairs out in the front yard or go atop a downtown Vegas casino to watch to show. Nuclear tests were conducted about every three weeks for a period of 12 years. There were 928 nuclear tests (both above and below ground) in 52 years.
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy hosts a free tour of the Nevada Test Site once a month. Now known as the Nevada National Security Site, the facility is about 65 miles outside Las Vegas and is roughly the size of Rhode Island. When you get there, you’ll know why they chose the location for their experiments…this must be where the term “middle of nowhere” came from. If you’re really lucky, your tour guide will be one of the “old-timers” that actually worked at the test site way back when. How’s that for a blast from the past?
Many Vegas residents worked at the highly classified site when it first opened in 1951. It was a bustling city back then. The town of Mercury (located on the test site) was the epicenter of social interaction with barracks, a bowling alley, a movie theater and swimming pool. What’s left is an echo of days gone by, ghostly remnants of a once buzzing era. Some of the buildings have been torn down and others are nearly empty. The cafeteria is still open for a bite to eat, but the edges of the posted steakhouse menu seemed to have curled long ago.
The tour takes visitors on a 250 mile trek down pockmarked roads where massive subsidence craters start to appear out of nowhere. They are the result of the atomic experiments that were conducted over numerous years. Some of the most well-known photos of nuclear testing were shot near these now anonymous cavities. But there is nothing anonymous about the Sedan crater. The 104-kiloton explosion blew away 12 million tons of earth. Part of a test exploring the use of nuclear bombs for excavation mining and more, the crater that remains is nearly 1,300 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep. It is the largest man-made crater in the United States.
Some of the most famous footage of the atomic test blasts were of houses being ripped from their foundations, disintegrating into not much more than soot and splinters. But there are still a few building shells left to see. They stand as hollow reminders of an era of frenzied experimentation. Also still standing is the tower and cabling for Icecap. On Oct. 2, 1992, just days before the Icecap test was scheduled to take place, President George H.W. Bush signed into law a moratorium on nuclear testing. The Icecap tower remains a monument to the end of nuclear testing in the United States.
To say the tour is exclusive is an understatement. There are people from all over the world that come to take it. There’s a security check required and the spaces fill up way in advance…as in several months out. So sign up early. If you have some flexibility with your travel dates or are close enough to Vegas to drive, ask to be on the waiting list. When there’s a cancellation, they’ll call you.
Also, don’t expect to be taking selfies on the tour. Cameras, cellular phones, video equipment and a multitude of other items are prohibited. The tour schedule and stops are flexible. The Nevada National Security Site is a working facility and areas can be closed off or not accessible.
Pair the tour with a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum so you can see what it was and what it is today. The museum’s interactive exhibits, films, original radio broadcasts and timelines give visitors insight to the time period. They also have a vast collection of relics and actual equipment from the test site, as well as pop culture items from the era.
When atomic fever settled on the public, companies responded to the craze with a slew of novelties. The museum features vintage comic books of “Atomic Superboy,” Atomic Fireball candy, mushroom cloud paperweights, “Atomic” sewing kits and bomb-shaped salt and pepper shakers from the 1950s.
In Vegas, besides atomic test viewing parties, the city hosted Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contests, hotels sold atomic cocktails and you could buy souvenirs of the atomic blasts including postcards and pictures.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the museum is hosting an exhibit – “70 Years of Peace” – during August. They’ll have a special month-long exhibit that includes a first-person account from a Japanese atomic bomb survivor, a Japanese Culture Day with tea ceremonies and more.
If museums happen to be your thing, there are additional exhibits about how atomic testing impacted Vegas at the Clark County and Nevada State Museums. If you’re looking for a less cerebral way to experience Vegas atomic history, check out Atomic Liquors. Their rooftop was a favorite place to watch the nuclear tests in the 1950s and the bar is still open today. It’s the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas and while you can no longer watch the blasts, you can still have one of their famous atomic cocktails.