In the relative cool and darkness of pre-dawn mornings in 1950s Las Vegas, residents and visitors awoke to see spectacular lights that never stopped dazzling no matter how many times they appeared.
These lights were not those of the neon jungle so associated with this adult Disneyland. Their purpose was significantly more ominous.
After the first atomic test lit up the desert sky with a fireball brighter than the sun at 5 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1951, diarist and Vegas resident Georgia Lewis was outraged.
She wrote at the time, "The atomic bomb! No one asked us what we thought about it. All the gambling people are furious, for, naturally, they fear that people will no longer come here. It shook us awake with the most terrific blast."
Lewis’ words are displayed at the Atomic Testing Museum, dedicated to "the history and science of nuclear testing," a most un-Vegas-like attraction a couple of blocks from the gaming and showgirls of the Strip and open since 2005.
Despite the concerns of Lewis and the "gambling people" on that January morning 60 years ago, people did come back as Las Vegas did what it does best: adapted and capitalized. Before long, mushroom clouds were appearing on souvenirs, and lounges were selling atomic cocktails. Additionally, the millions of dollars spent on atomic testing was as much of a boom to the Vegas economy as gaming and Sinatra.
Sometimes serious history happens in the most unlikely places. It was not far from the neon of Las Vegas that sobering events, direct results of the Cold War, took place in the early 1950s.
In 1952 President Harry Truman designated the Las Vegas Valley as a "critical defense area." This parcel of land, bigger than Rhode Island, was selected because it was less costly than the South Pacific where previous atomic tests had been conducted, and already owned by the federal government and under military control.
The Atomic Testing Museum takes no stand on the morality of nuclear testing. Rather, it preserves the legacy of this period of Cold War History. There is no pro- or anti- here. The museum objectively documents what took place a little more than 60 miles from the city, when Uncle Sam began atomic testing.
A common thought of visitors as they leave is that life is fragile.
The museum’s atmospheric testing gallery covers nuclear experimentation from July 1945 until late 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was ratified.
MUSEUM OF ATOMIC TESTING
» Location: 755 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas
» Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays; last ticket sold at 4:30 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
» Admission: $12, $9 ages 7-17, 65 and up, and for students and military
» Information: Call 702-794-5150 or visit www.atomictestingmuseum.org
» Note: Free tours of the Nevada Test Site are offered by the National Nuclear Security Administration, leaving from the museum. Reservations required at least five weeks in advance; call 702-295-0944 or 702-292-0941, or visit the website www.nv.doe.gov/nts/tours.htm.
Exhibits include the "Davy Crockett," a small bomb designed to be fired from a missile launcher mounted to the ground or even a Jeep; and a yellow rocket-shaped cone created to be launched into a mushroom cloud to collect bits and pieces of fallout which would later be analyzed.
Geiger counters and survey meters used to measure alpha, beta and gamma radiation fill another display case. But the inclusion of pop culture, such as the birth of the atomic cocktail and a Kix cereal "atomic bomb ring" from 1946 — which would bring the largest ever response to a cereal giveaway — proves that the museum is more than bombs; one does not need a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to have a worthy experience.
In the re-created underground bomb shelter, mannequins representing a period suburban nuclear family — no pun intended — stand in front of an industrial-sized black canister that held drinking water and was supplied to households through the Civil Defense program. The mannequins also pay homage to the mannequins used in early atomic bomb tests.
On a 1950s Packard Bell black-and-white television in the mock bomb shelter, Civil Defense films and public service announcements are repeatedly played. These include the famous duck-and-cover ads with an animated Bert the Turtle ducking and covering inside his shell, and live-action children ducking and covering under their desks, standard procedure in school air-raid drills.
A voice-over advises, "You know how bad sunburn can feel. The atomic bomb flash could burn you worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you’re not covered. But if you duck and cover like Bert, you’ll be much safer."
Younger visitors might find these films silly; my teenage daughter asked, "Did people really believe this stuff?" But these films were not the products of paranoid fringe groups. The roughly five-minute film with Bert the Turtle was a co-production of the federal government and the Safety Commission of the National Education Association.
The closest one can get to the real thing is a re-creation that takes place in the Ground Zero Theater, which makes full use of Surround Sound and a wide screen. And even though we knew the big boom was coming as part of the theatrical presentation, it still jarred us. Other films, about test rockets and radiation exposure experiments, can be screened in the Silo Theater, a mock-up of a missile silo.
Yet there were people living in the Nevada desert long before Uncle Sam set off bombs there. It is humbling, in a way, to stand before a display case with a crude horse brush and fuel container used by American Indians who for centuries made their home on the land that would become atomic testing grounds.
An attraction like this can get lost in a Vegas visitor’s itinerary. But how many people can get educated on such an important era of modern history at a casino?
Michael Schuman is a travel writer and author who recently won first place in the family travel category from the North American Travel Journalists Association.