LOS ALAMOS – Tucked away in one of northern New Mexico’s pristine mountain canyons is an old log cabin that was the birthplace not of a famous person, but a top-secret mission that forever changed the world.
Pond Cabin, along with a nearby small and stark building where the second person died while developing the nuclear bomb, are among a number of structures scattered in and around the modern day Los Alamos National Laboratory that are being proposed as sites for a new national park commemorating the Manhattan Project.
It’s an odd place for a national park, many admit. Besides the fact that some of the sites are behind the gates to what is supposed to be one of the most secure research facilities in the world, nuclear critics have called the plan an expensive glorification of an ugly chapter in history.
“It is a debasement of the national parks idea,” anti-nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group co-founder Greg Mello said when the Interior Department two years ago recommended creating national parks at Los Alamos; Hanford, Wash.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
He remains opposed to the plan, saying it will not provide a comprehensive picture of the Manhattan Project, and he notes that extensive interpretative museums concerning development of the nuclear bomb already exist.
Supporters, however, note that, good or bad, the Manhattan Project transformed history. And they argue that key sites that have not already been bulldozed should be preserved and the public should be allowed to visit them.
“It isn’t glorifying anything,” says Ellen McGehee, historical facilities manager for Los Alamos labs. “It’s really more a commemoration … . History is what it is. We can’t pick and choose what’s historically significant.”
The park service, she said, would help people learn about the controversies, the people, and the social, political and military legacy surrounding the development of nuclear weapons.
“There are a lot of emotions rolled up in this story,” she said. “That’s why the park service is the best entity to tell this story. They can approach it as an outsider. They have no real interest in how it is told. They can tell it from a national perspective.”
Among the proposed park’s biggest supporters are lab workers like McGehee. She has been working since an act was passed in 2004 to study the creation of such parks, and to help identify and preserve areas in town and within lab property to include.
Potential park properties include some buildings in downtown Los Alamos, a town that was essentially created to support the lab, as well as 17 buildings in six “industrial sites” within the lab’s fence. They include the V-site, where the first atomic bomb to be detonated at the Trinity Site was assembled, as well as the areas where the Little Boy and Fat Man nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, were assembled.
Also on the list is the Pajarito site, which includes Pond Cabin and the Slotin Building. Pond Cabin had been part of a boys’ school and dude ranch that was purchased and taken over to create Los Alamos lab. It was turned into a key plutonium research office after the first so-called “criticality accident” killed physicist Harry Daghlian, prompting officials to move research to the cabin in a more remote area. A few hundred yards away is the Slotin Building, where Louis Alexander Slotin was killed after a slipped screwdriver accidentally began a fission reaction, making him the second casualty of the Manhattan Project.
Legislation to create the parks at the nation’s nuclear sites passed the House and one Senate committee earlier this year. If it is passed and signed into law, the parks would be limited to areas involved in the Manhattan Project that created the first nuclear weapons.
But McGehee has also been busy researching and documenting other now closed areas of the lab. For example, during a 70th anniversary commemoration this summer, lab officials took media, and workers and their families on tours of what until recently had been a secret tunnel where the nation’s nuclear stockpile was stored after World War II.
“It’s a fascinating process and really exciting from a historian’s point of view,” McGehee said. “It’s a weird hometown history.”