Cattle grazing by the newly created cattle pond. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Museum
Ranch School boys in canoes in the pond. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Museum
By ROBERT DRYJA
There is a small section of land that was crucial to the creation of Los Alamos and is still important to this day. The section is a rectangle 400 by 600 feet to a side. It has varied from having ponderosa forest to open grass land on it, depending on which decade is considered.
The geologic feature that makes this section significant is its shape. It is a gentle depression in the landscape. There is drop of about 15 feet from its sides to its center.
What is the name of this place? Ashley Pond.
The mesa tops of the Pajarito Plateau have no permanent ponds. Rain fall and snow melt are the only sources of temporary moisture. However, there is one place that historically had some water accumulate as a muddy puddle in a depression—the future Ashley Pond. Homesteaders referred to it as the “tanque”.
This depression could have been one of the reasons a small Tewa Indian community was created. A 28 room pueblo with a Kiva was built about 1350 near the depression and is now part of the Los Alamos historic district. It would have been a short distance to walk for water. This community and others were abandoned by about 1600. H. Brook learned of this depression while looking for a possible homestead site for raising cattle. Evidently enough water would accumulate in it that it could be a source of water for cattle. He established a homestead in 1908 as a result of this puddle. This homestead then set stage for Ashley Pond (the person) when he was looking for a site to build the Ranch School. He took over the H. H. Brook homestead in 1918 as part of creating the Ranch School.
The Ranch School therefore could have been built elsewhere if the depression had not existed. The mud puddle/intermittent pond was sufficient to be attractive for the school. But the school needed a larger and permanent supply of water to support its students and faculty. A pipe line was built from Alamo canyon and it provided a constant supply water from a reservoir.
This was sufficient to support the Ranch School community. Its excess water filled the mud puddle depression. A larger pond was created that initially was called the duck pond or cattle pond. Eventually it was renamed Ashley Pond, recognizing Ashley Pond, the person who created the Ranch School.
The Ranch School was taken over for the Manhattan Project in 1942 during World War II. The school facilities provided a setting to immediately start developing the atomic bomb. Ashley Pond took on a different kind of importance during the Manhattan Project. The initial planning for buildings proposed that the pond be drained and filled in. However it was realized that the pond could be source of water if a fire occurred in the new laboratory buildings.
A small ice storage house had been built next to the pond as part of the Ranch School. Ice blocks were cut from the pond in the winter and stored in it. This stone house was used to store the components and completed atomic bombs.
The mud puddle therefore shifted from (1) supporting a small Tewa Indian community to (2) being a water source for cattle, to (3) being a play pond for Ranch School students, to (4) providing for fire control and finally to (5) storing an atomic bomb.
The temporary Manhattan Project of World War II became the permanent community of Los Alamos. It was proposed shortly after the end of World War II that Ashley Pond be filled in. The war related laboratory buildings were being torn down, creating an open area. The pond could have been made part of the open area. However, the citizens of the new town of Los Alamos protested, wanting the pond maintained.
In a sense, a depression in a mesa top led to the creation of Los Alamos. Los Alamos in turn saved this depression as Ashley Pond, a major scenic location in the downtown. An appreciation of the natural world can lead to a better understanding of why today’s communities exist as they do.
The Manhattan Project buildings have been removed and Ashley Pond is nearly empty of water. The community building stands out on the side of the nearly empty pond. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Museum
Restored Ashley Pond in the early 1960’s. The County Municipal Building was built on one side. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Museum