By: Richard L. Carey
During a visit to my relatives near Albuquerque, New Mexico I had a chance to visit the site of the first atomic bomb test which occurred on July 16, 1945. The Trinity site, as it was named by Robert Oppenheimer, is in the northern part of the White Sands missile Range and is normally closed to the public.
Twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and October, the site is opened to the public from 9 am to 2 pm. A 51,500 acre area including ground zero, where the bomb was placed for the explosion; base camp, where scientists and support crew lived; and the McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium bomb core was assembled, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
About 9 miles south of Socorro on route 25, at the small town of San Antonio, we turned east on route 380. After 12 miles we turned south on route 515 toward Stallion Site on the missile range. At the guard shack we were greeted and given an informational brochure and directed to follow the road 17 miles to our destination. Dozens of cars passed by as we traveled across the flat desert valley called Jornada del Muerto. As in California, the spring rains made the land green and lush with lots of yucca. There are only a few scattered snail test sites in this vast area and the road is paved all the way. Traffic was backed up for a half mile or more as we crawled into the parking area. There were perhaps 200 cars there. The Army, always thinking of our safety and comfort, had 20 portable toilets set up and a military ambulance was waiting should someone faint or get bitten by a rattlesnake.
A short walk from the parking area, through a fence marked with radiation hazard signs, is Ground Zero, with a lava rock obelisk and bronze plaque on the spot where the bomb was placed atop a 100 foot tower. Nothing remains of the tower which was instantly vaporized except a few chunks of steel rebar sticking out of the ground at one corner. Radiation, although ten times higher than background levels, is said to be safe and much less than one's normal yearly exposure. We were advised however, not to eat, drink, or smoke in the area or pick up rocks. The thought of radiation didn't seem to deter the hordes of people. plant life and the general appearance of ground zero were about the same as the surrounding desert and nothing indicated the past explosion of a 20 kiloton bomb. There had been grading at the site many years ago to fill in the shallow crater and remove the radioactive Trinitite, a molten glass-like rock forced by the intense heat of the blast.
The Army had arranged two buses to shuttle people two miles to the old McDonald ranch. This structure, originally built by the Schmidt family in 1913, has been restored to its 1945 appearance by the Park Service. Numerous photos inside the house depict the harsh, isolated ranching life lived by several generations before the Army took over.
Regardless of your sentiments on the nuclear age, the Trinity Site visit is an interesting and educational trip and offers one a chance to reflect on an event that changed the world. It could be combined with a visit to the nearby Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, and, in the fall, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is also held in the first week of October.
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