Los Alamos Ranch School emerged atop the Pajarito plateau in 1917, fulfilling the dream of Ashley Pond, a free-spirited businessman from Detroit.
He could have never imagined that the campus, an outdoor sanctuary for burgeoning young men, would become the site of one of the country’s most celebrated, and deadly, scientific achievements – the atomic bomb. The campus also gave rise to Bathtub Row, one of the most prominent and unusually named streets in the area.
Pond’s father was a well-respected attorney in Detroit who was at one time even considered for the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a piece by Los Alamos Historical Society member Sharon Snyder.
But Pond wasn’t like his father and had no desire to spend his days in an office or a courtroom. His love was the outdoors, believing in its restorative powers. He also believed in the benefits of a hard day of physical labor.
He brought the two ideas together with his school, which offered a college preparatory and rigourous outdoor curriculum for boys. He modeled the school’s program after the Boy Scouts of America. In addition to academic studies, students were expected to exercise and help maintain the campus, which had buildings, including dormitories and faculty houses. Seven of those homes sat in a row and included what was a luxury in that remote area at the time – bathtubs.
The bathtubs, or lack thereof, would become more pronounced in the years to come.
During World War II, the military came knocking.
The U.S. Army appropriated the school and 60,000 surrounding acres in 1943 so it could build the bomb. Its remote nature, access to water, excessive land and already existing buildings made it an ideal location for the Manhattan Project.
The Bathtub Row homes, also referred to as master houses, were the residences of scientists working on the Manhattan Project.
An Oct. 1, 1945, article in the Santa Fe New Mexican with the headline “Apartments Provide Comfort for Bomb People” described the living situations there at the time.
“The snootiest dwellings in the democratic community are six or seven houses on ‘Bathtub Row.’ They were the homes of faculty members of the school and were grabbed up by early-arriving scientists.”
Those living in the snooty dwellings included J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director overseeing the research and design of the atomic bomb and Nobel-prize winning physicist Edwin McMillan.
Later in life, McMillan’s wife Elsie recalled that time in an interview posted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
“Now we are on Bathtub Row,” she said. “They really don’t like us because we’ve got a bathtub and only about eight houses have bathtubs. But, shucks, we came so early. That’s the only reason we have a masters home.”
She went on to explain her house might have had a bathtub, but the luxury didn’t extend to the kitchen. There was no stove, and her husband suggested she cook over the fireplace, which left Elsie less than enthusiastic.
Another family on Bathtub Row was that of Englishman Sir James Chadwick, also a Nobel Prize winner. He moved with his London debutante wife and twin daughters to Los Alamos in 1943. According to the historical society, the three never adapted to the mountain town.
“They just did not appreciate the mud streets and the cold winds that blew here in the springtime and the dust. They really did not like living in Los Alamos,” Heather McClenahan, then executive director of the historical society, recalled in 2018.
Chadwick moved his family back to Washington, D.C., after only a few months, but stayed involved with the project.
For a long time, Bathtub Row was simply a nickname and the road’s true name was 20th Street. Residents petitioned the city council to make the nickname official in May of 2007 and the request was granted. The reasons cited were that the street “traverses the Historic District, its wide acceptance and its power to commemorate an important part history.”
The homes are now owned by private residents and the Los Alamos Historical Society.
This column does not, cannot, even begin to tell the whole story of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. The Atomic Heritage Foundation website (atomicheritage.org) provides a deeper look, including interviews and short bios. The Manhattan Project Voices website (manhattanprojectvoices.org) includes an extensive oral history from people who worked on the Manhattan Project. The two groups collaborated with each other and the historical society to record the history.
Pond probably never imagined his love of nature would morph into the site for building a bomb, and that the same site would lead to the creation of a town and Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employs more than 13,000 people today.
Bathtub Row is still offering inspiration, even beyond the occasional historic talk or tour.
A co-op pub and brewery opened in Los Alamos in May of 2015 on Central Park Square. Its members voted to name it Bathtub Row Brewing.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”