Blast from the past: Atomic Las Vegas then and now

Things were really booming in Vegas in the 1950s. Just about everyone was having a blast.

Well, sort of …

As the use of an atomic bomb at the end of World War II ushered in an arms race with Russia, an era of fascination (and fear) for all things atomic swept the nation. Vegas was not immune.

Miss Atomic Bomb 1957

Though the Cold War ended in the early ’90s, remnants of this fascination remain today as locals and tourists alike visit the Atomic Testing Museum, tour the Nevada National Security Site or sip on atom bomb-inspired drinks at Atomic Liquors downtown.

Allan Palmer, executive director of the National Atomic Testing Museum, attributes the lasting vestiges of atomic fever to the atom bomb’s impact on the city’s history.

The 1950 creation of the Nevada National Security Site (originally known as the Nevada Proving Grounds and later the Nevada Test Site) played a critical role in the development of Las Vegas, he says.

“In the twenties and thirties into the early forties Las Vegas was kind of a dusty crossroads for the railroads,” says Palmer. “When President Truman set up the Nevada Proving Grounds, billions of dollars flowed in and lots of people came in … people from all over brought their families here and settled here, opened businesses and schools, and built the culture of early Las Vegas.”

Several local museums such as the Nevada State Museum and the Clark County Museum have exhibits covering Las Vegas’ nuclear history, but with more than 12,000 unique artifacts from the atomic age (including an actual bomb) the National Atomic Testing Museum provides the most comprehensive collection.

Pop culture artifacts include a Kix cereal box that once contained a toy atomic bomb ring, Atomic Fireball candy and books like “Survival Under Atomic Attack” and “Atomic Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for Modern Times.” Guests of all ages can view interactive displays, short films, timelines and real equipment from the Nevada National Security Site.

Though tests were done above ground, the test site started out as a top secret operation. Palmer says the jobs were so classified that many of those who were recruited to work there originally met in trailers in a dusty parking lot next to a casino or in the middle of a casino for their assignment.

“No one ever told them exactly what they’d be doing until they showed up,” he says.

Tours of the Nevada test site are now available once a month to groups and individuals. The tours depart from the  National Atomic Testing Museum and cover about 250 miles including Mercury,  Nev., the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Site and the T-2 Training Area.

A mushroom cloud from an atomic test as seen from downtown Las Vegas in the 1950s.

Nevada’s first nuclear experiment took place at the site on Jan. 27, 1951, and the first televised atomic blast took place in 1952. That same year, the first known photo of an atomic pinup girl, known as Miss Atomic Blast, popped up in newspapers around the country to advertise a show at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

When the Stardust Hotel and Casino debuted in 1958, many tourists gathered there to watch atomic blasts taking place at the test site. The font on the original Stardust sign, which is now on display at the Neon Museum, became known as the “Atomic” font

Another popular place to watch the blasts was on the roof at Atomic Liquors in downtown Las Vegas. This historic bar closed in 2011 after six decades but reopened earlier this year. The menu includes The F-Bomb, a drink designed by the National Atomic Testing Museum containing Fireball cinnamon whisky, Fernet and Atomic Energy Drink.

In spite of the pop culture frenzy of the atomic era, it was also one of fear. Government messages for how to survive a nuclear attack became a part of daily life.

“Mom and dad would read about how to build a bomb shelter while kids were doing duck and cover drills or practicing evacuating their schools to head out to fallout shelters with food rations,” says Palmer. “There was a lot of fear. ‘How are we going to survive? What if there’s a nuclear winter?’ It was a pretty grim period.”

One remaining testament to this fear in Las Vegas is a ’70s-era underground house built 26 feet beneath the ground a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Built by an entrepreneur who anticipated fallout from the Cold War, the house today pays homage to a more recent crisis — the foreclosure crisis. It is now bank owned and available for sale.