Miss Atomic Bomb Las Vegas News Bureau

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.

Bombs over Fremont. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

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.

Dancing with the cloud. (Las Vegas News Bureau)
Watching poolside. (Las Vegas News Bureau)
First the flash of light... (Las Vegas News Bureau)
Then a "fantastically bright cloud... climbing upward like a huge umbrella." (Las Vegas News Bureau)

 

Soldiers at the test site. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    Reviving the Utopian Urban Dreams of Tony Garnier

    While little known outside of France, architect and city planner Tony Garnier (1869-1948) is as closely associated with Lyon as Antoni Gaudí is with Barcelona.

  2. Transportation

    Berlin Will Spend €2 Billion Per Year to Improve Public Transit

    The German capital plans to make major investments to expand bus and rail networks, boost frequency, and get ahead of population growth. Are you jealous yet?

  3. Design

    How Advertising Conquered Urban Space

    In cities around the world, advertising is everywhere. We may try to shut it out, but it reflects who we are (or want to be) and connects us to the urban past.

  4. Equity

    Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

    The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over a decade to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

  5. photo: A metro train at Paris' Gare Du Nord.
    Transportation

    Can the Paris Metro Make Room for More Riders?

    The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

×