Friday, July 8, 2022

Stories from the Secret City (Part 1)

by Martha Hutchens

Nobel Prize Medal in Los Alamos County History Museum,
 photo by Martha Hutchens
Los Alamos, New Mexico is a small town with a big history, mostly in science. After all, how many small town museums have a Nobel Prize as their prime exhibit? Or a television monitor on main street that broadcasts “News from Mars” (camera feed from the Mars explorer.) 

But science wasn’t the only thing that happened in this town at the heart of World War II’s Manhattan Project. Regular life had to happen too—as well as it could around the security involved in being a secret city. Because of that, many legends have sprung up around life in Los Alamos during WWII. I thought I might share a few of them with you today. Most are true or at least have truth in them, but all give a look at the humorous side of living in “The Town that Never Was.”

Interior of Lamy Train Station, built 1909 and still
in use as an Amtrak station
Photo by Martha Hutchens
Arriving in Los Alamos was no easy feat. People were told to report to 109 East Palace, Santa Fe, New Mexico, because the very words “Los Alamos” were classified. The nearest train depot for people arriving from the east was in Lamy, NM. Military buses picked up passengers and transported them to Santa Fe, where the weary travelers learned that they still had approximately four hours to go—including the infamous Hill Road, a road up the mountain with switch backs so sharp that one had a bulldozer stationed beside it to give buses a nudge when they couldn’t complete the turn.

The most famous scientists that took part in the project traveled under assumed names. No bureaucrat wanted the enemy to notice the amount of scientific talent that had disappeared into the New Mexico mountains. Therefore, Enrico Fermi became Eugene Farmer, Niels Bohr became Nicolas Baker, and his son, Aage Bohr, became James Baker.

One unfortunate wife arrived in Lamy after her husband and attempted to board the bus to Santa Fe. The driver asked her name and checked his list. No, her name wasn’t there. She couldn’t get in. No arguing that her husband already lived there availed until someone realized that no one had told her she had a new name!

Jemez Mountains in the Evening, Los Alamos is 
located on the easter edge of the Jemez
Photo by Martha Hutchens
Because the town name couldn’t be mentioned, the residents developed nicknames for it. Shangri-La (a remote imaginary place) was popular. I really enjoy “Lost Almost.” for its pun. The Hill is the nickname that remains to this day, because Los Alamos is on the edge of a mountain range overlooking the Espanola valley. Funny thing. I don’t think the men who chose the location for this town were Bible scholars. After all, “a city on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matt:5:14) Just as the Bible says, when you drive toward the town at night, the lights of this city float in the sky. 

While Los Alamos may have been a secret to the world at large, everyone knew about it in north central New Mexico, a fact demonstrated by the following story. A quirk of Los Alamos construction had scalding hot water occasionally emerging from the cold water taps. One man went to a plumbing supply place in Santa Fe to look at shower heads. He asked the proprietor if a particular model would stand up to very hot water. The owner immediately replied that he had sold many of that brand to people in Los Alamos.

How could he—or the other locals—know who lived in Los Alamos? Simple. The locals were accustomed to the intense sun that comes with high altitude. The newcomers wore hats! It also helped that the FBI frequently followed Los Alamos residents when they shopped in Santa Fe.

According to legend, another resident had a problem with the secrecy surround identities. He was supposedly stopped for a traffic violation somewhere between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. The officer asked the man’s name. I am sure he winced at the question, but he politely replied, “I’m sorry, Officer. I am not allowed to say.” The officer swore for a few minutes, then asked for the man’s driver’s license. I can only imagine how the poor scientist felt when he handed over a license that didn’t have a name, only a number. Supposedly, the man was only allowed to leave after the governor of the state got involved in the standoff. Personally, I doubt the governor part of this legend, but the licenses with no name, address, or signature were true, as you can see from the photo below.

Eleanor Jette's Driver's License, taken from
Inside Box 1663, by Eleanor Jette
Finally, I couldn’t finish the post without a mention of the famous Bathtub Row. You see, before the war, a private ranch school occupied the Los Alamos town site. It had only a handful of buildings. By the end of the war, over 5000 people lived there, most in hastily constructed apartments which didn’t have bathtubs. Metal rationing is an simple explanation for this lack, but town lore blames General Groves, the leader of the project and a man well known for his penny-pinching when it came to the civilians in the town.

But the four houses that had belonged to instructors of the ranch school had bathtubs and were built along a single street, which was immediately dubbed Bathtub Row. When I arrived in Los Alamos seventeen years ago, the street had a different name, but I doubt anyone remembers it. The county finally bowed to reality a few years later and admitted what everyone else already knew. That street only had one name.

Street sign in Los Alamos
Photo by Martha Hutchens
I hope you enjoyed these stories from a quirky time and place in American history. If you would like to learn more, I highly recommend the memoir, Inside Box 1663 by Eleanor Jette. 

Does your home town have similar legends?

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

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  1. Thanks for posting today. I had never heard about this before. I can only imagine the conspiracy theories that arise from this!

  2. Great post! I had a friend whose father worked there in the 60s, and she talked about what it was like to grow up there and the stories/legends that circulated. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love stories like this and was aware of this one because two of my husband's four sisters lived in New Mexico and we visited them several times. New Mexico has some really interesting places to visit and Los Alamos is at the top of the list. We missed going there because of a huge sand storm that blew through Jal where one sister lived and we had to stay inside and then we left the next day. After reading this, I really wish we could have visited the town.