Opening of the Main Gate February 1957. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society
Main Gate circa early 1950s. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society
By HEATHER MCCLENAHAN
Los Alamos Historical Society
“Los Alamos Notes Little Effect From Opening Its Gates” is a historic headline. It appeared in the May 6, 1957 edition of the of the Albuquerque Journal, with an article about how removing the security gates at the entrance of the once-secret city did not lead to a wave of crime and other problems.
Los Alamos residents were shocked in February 1957 to learn that in less than one week, the gates that guarded the town since its inception would come down. The town had been a top-secret city during World War II and a “gated” community since, and most residents were used to keeping their doors unlocked and their bicycles left out and about.
“[T]hings will continue pretty much the same,” resident James Waber was reported to have said at the time. His prediction turned out to be correct.
Prior to Feb. 18, 1957, visitors to Los Alamos had to obtain a pass at least 24 hours in advance of their arrival. They had to be visiting someone specific—no tourists or casual visitors were allowed. Out-of-town high school sports teams were required to have passes for everyone on the bus, and even students who lived in the old White Rock construction camp, which existed before the community of White Rock was built in the early 1960s, had to have their passes checked on the school bus each day before they could get to school in the townsite.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, “There had been reports that the Atomic Energy Commission would decide whether to eliminate the pass system at a meeting in January.
A poll of every tenth persons in Los Alamos … showed strong sentiment in favor of retaining the ‘closed status.’ Opinions to the contrary were equally strong but less numerous.”
The announcement of the gate’s planned demise and the actual event were only four days apart. Media reports differed on the community’s reaction.
“Los Alamos Throws Gate Wide Open,” a Santa Fe New Mexican headline declared. The article went on to explain only three residents had contacted the Atomic Energy Commission about the decision, two in favor and one against.
On the other hand, the Albuquerque Journal announced, “Surprise ‘Open City’ Order Leaves Hill Flabbergasted.” The article reported on several residents’ complaints about having to lock their doors and being “sorry it happened.”
The first person through the gate without a pass, on an overcast, rather snowy day, was New Mexico Governor Edwin L. Mechem. He was met by Paul Wilson, the Los Alamos manager for the Atomic Energy Commission, who noted Los Alamos would now become “a more normal community.”
There was still one big problem, though. An article in Newsweek magazine on March 4, 1957, lamented: “But the people of Los Alamos, as they looked around at their snug houses of pink, blue, green, and white, weren’t so sure they would like being more normal. Until now, they had not had to worry about burglars, hawkers, tourists—or even unexpected visits from in-laws.”
Information for this article was taken from oral history interviews and the book, Los Alamos: The First Forty Years, edited and annotated by Fern Lyon and Jacob Evans and published by the Los Alamos Historical Society. The book is out of print.