Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Nevada's nuclear-bomb testing spawned a spectator culture tinged with both profound fear and Sin City delight.
Today, downtown Las Vegas’ Fremont Street is canopied by 90 feet of LED lights, all twinkling images for passing tourists below.
Years ago, another sort of light flashed over Fremont and attracted a crowd: the bursts of atomic bombs.
For four decades, the U.S. Department of Energy tested more than a thousand nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site, a desert expanse just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The 1951 detonation of a warhead 1,060 feet over the desert floor marked the beginning of the above-ground trials, whose famous mushroom clouds were easily visible from the nearby tourist magnet.
“They would light up the sky,” says Allen Palmer, executive director of the National Atomic Testing Museum. “It turned night into day.”
In true Las Vegas style, the city capitalized on the atomic spectacle. The Chamber of Commerce printed up calendars advertising detonation times and the best spots for watching. Casinos like Binion’s Horseshoe and the Desert Inn flaunted their north-facing vistas, offering special “atomic cocktails” and “Dawn Bomb Parties,” where crowds danced and quaffed until a flash lit the sky. Women decked out as mushroom clouds vied for the “Miss Atomic Energy” crown at the Sands. “The best thing to happen to Vegas was the Atomic Bomb,” one gambling magnate declared.
This was a bit like putting Christmas lights on a stainless steel bunker. Here was an age stamped with Hiroshima’s horrors, paranoia of radiation and the “Red Menace,” and profound uncertainty about what any day might bring. Talk of the Apocalypse became mainstream vernacular, wrote Scientific American's David Ropeik in a review of a memoir on that era.
Las Vegas tangled dread of nuclear war with delight over preparations for that very contingency. “People were fascinated by the clouds, by this idea of unlocking secrets of atom,” says Palmer. “But there was absolutely an underlying fear—we were so close by.” It was a fear pronounced enough that the government issued military-style dog tags to local schoolchildren.
So it went until 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty ended above-ground nuclear trials following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fears dwindled, and the Las Vegas atomic pageant came to an end. Memories of these days, when we rubber-necked our own doom, live on in these photographs from the Las Vegas News Bureau.