An unexpected discovery

christmasinnewmexicoOn a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a Christmas visit with my brother, I knew it was unlikely that we would find the time to visit Los Alamos. The round-trip drive from Albuquerque to Los Alamos and back again didn’t seem feasible both for spending quality family time and due to unpredictable winter weather in the mountains. When the partial government shutdown affected the National Park Service, visiting an unstaffed Los Alamos became less enticing. Then the first blizzard in 80 years struck Albuquerque late on Christmas Day and a trip to Los Alamos was firmly on the list for the next time.

New Englanders, like me, might sneer at a mere 4.5 inches of snow, but Albuquerque, a city of 550,000, is prepared to plow only the major roads. They do not plow residential streets and, generally, the city shuts down when there is snow. Stores, restaurants and museums did not open since folks couldn’t get to work. Most people don’t own a snow shovel, we learned, when my brother cleared his deck with a dustpan. We heard that the airport was relying on being shoveled out, they ended up closing when the icy, very windy runways made landing and taking off impossible. The highway north of Albuquerque, the road that would take us to Santa Fe and then Los Alamos, also closed. The evening after the storm we found a nearby restaurant open but was very crowded. As we were leaving, the skeleton staff at the restaurant announced that were closing because they had run out of clean dishes. The cook, bartender, waiter, and busboy who was put to work taking orders, wasn’t enough to handle the hungry crowd and take care of the dishes.

The day after the storm we agreed that a train trip to Santa Fe was in order. The day after the storm was cold, about 20 degrees, but clear and sunny. The bright sun in this dry climate turned the snow to slush which then evaporated quickly. Anticipating only a few people on the train with us, we were surprised to find a multitude of tourists and day-trippers, along with those intrepid folks who had left their cars in or near Santa Fe when the highway closed. They had continued to Albuquerque by train and were now heading back to retrieve their cars from the various stops along with way. It was a fun, though crowded, ride.

109_East_Palace

Santa Fe, higher in altitude and more, well, different than Albuquerque, meant lower temperatures, streets full of tourists, and vendors occupying the dry spaces under the verandah’s in front of each building around the main square. Our plan was to do some of the touristy things, some shopping, have lunch and head back. The Governor’s Palace, the oldest, continually operating government building in the United States, was closed for renovations, so that was an exterior only view; the Basilica was worth the climb up and down the icy stone steps as long as you had a firm grip on the wrought iron railings; and the many, many shops that sold jewelry, western clothing and hats, were fun but you need only so much jewelry, western clothing and hats. Santa Fe had more snow, and the slush was deeper, than in Albuquerque. After the touristy things and a quick lunch, we headed to the New Mexico History Museum to warm up, dry off and see what was on exhibit. While perusing the gift store merchandise, I noticed Jennet Conant’s  109 East Palace[1] book in a place of prominence. My gaze expanded to take in the other books on the table and found almost all the books were about the Manhattan Project. The featured exhibit was Atomic Histories: Remembering New Mexico’s Nuclear Past[2]. Our random decision to visit the museum became an unexpected must see.

We split up, each to take in a different exhibit of interest. I headed for the Atomic Histories and it became apparent that 109 East Palace is the Santa Fe address used by the Manhattan Project for the secret project city of Los Alamos. The other secret project city, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, similarly used PO Boxes and offices in Knoxville, TN, as its official addresses. While Oak Ridge used several addresses, Los Alamos, which was smaller but just as critical, used only one. I realized that the Governor’s Palace is connected to the museum, that the Governor’s Palace faces Palace Road, and Palace Road is one of the four streets bordering Santa Fe’s main square. Therefore, the Los Alamos Manhattan Project office at 109 East Palace Road must be nearby.

109_east_palace2We made a quick run outside, around the corner to Palace Road and down the street, dodging tourists and vendors, to East Palace Road. We found a nondescript sign in an arched doorway indicating that the office was located across the small, snow-covered plaza. A slippery sprint across the plaza brought us to a wire fence. Through the fencing we viewed a slightly larger brass plaque that officially designates this small, somewhat hidden former Manhattan Project office. The fencing may be due to the rehabilitation work being done on the Palace, or it may be to keep tourists away from the existing business occupying the building, but there is no one around to ask. Excited to find this important Manhattan Project detail in such an unexpected and unheralded place, we took pictures of the historical marker through the fencing and then raced, as quickly as the now icy streets would allow, to catch the train back to Albuquerque.

This discovery both enhances my research on the role that my grandfather held on the that project, and provides some insight into the meaning of the title of the 109 East Palace book. The author, Jennet Conant, is the granddaughter of James Conant, one of the senior scientists working on the Manhattan Project while he was President of Harvard College during WWII.

[1] Conant, Jennet. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

[2] New Mexico History Museum



Categories: Manhattan Project, travel, writing

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