Manhattan Project National Historical Park Gives Visitors A Glimpse ‘Behind The Fence’


Manhattan Project National Historical Park Interpreters Samantha Linford and J.T. Stark discuss the cavates, the remains of the ancestral Pueblos behind them, during the May 11 ‘behind the fence’ tour in Pajarito Canyon, which included members of the media and Los Alamos County representatives. Courtesy/LANL

Manhattan Project National Historical Park Interpreter Jeremy Brunette discusses Ashley Pond’s cabin during the May 11 ‘behind the fence’ tour. Courtesy/LANL

Los Alamos Daily Post

Every place has a story to tell, but Los Alamos has not one but a whole series of tales to share. On May 11, a group of representatives from Los Alamos County and the media participated in a “behind the fence” tour of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP). As participants gathered in a tucked-away part of Pajarito Canyon, it was clear that a great story was about to begin.

The tale starts with the canyon walls. The sand-colored, rocky cliff sides are dotted with brush and assumingly pockmarked with what seems to be holes whorled from wind and time. Think again. According to MPNHP Interpreters J.T. Stark and Samantha Linford, those cutouts or more correctly, cavates, are the remains of the ancestral Pueblos although under select circumstances present-day tribal members visit the sites for ceremonial purposes. It was reported during the tour that this period had the highest density of indigenous people living on the Pajarito Plateau. The Pueblo people moved on to the Rio Grande Valley and the Pajarito Plateau saw newcomers – the Spanish, followed by homesteaders.

Ashley Pond’s cabin is a remnant of the Homesteader period. It was explained during the tour that individuals could file for tracts of land for seasonal farming, ranching and resource extraction. One of those land grant recipients was Ramon Vigil and Pond built a cabin as an office for the Pajarito Club, which was a commercial ranch located on Vigil’s land grant. Although the commercial ranch shut down, the one-room, drafty log cabin continued to be of use during the Manhattan Project. In fact, Manhattan Project scientist Emilio Segrè used the cabin to do plutonium chemistry research that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Fat Man bomb.

To be successful in creating the bomb and ending the war that was taking 350 U.S. soldiers’ lives every day, tests needed to be done, MPNHP Interpreter Phil Tubesing said. Battleship Bunker, a concrete structure jutting out of the ground, was used to support implosion diagnostic tests related to the Fat Man design development.

With the end of World War II, the Manhattan Project successfully concluded but the laboratory’s story continues. Inside a high-bay structure, known as the Slotin Building, scientist Louis Slotin was conducting a nuclear criticality experiment when something went wrong.

Slotin became exposed to the radiation, which led to his death. The incident significantly changed the way the laboratory addressed safety procedures.

Sharing this and other stories of Los Alamos and the laboratory requires a lot of work and coordination with multiple partners, Cheryl Abeyta, the program manager for the park at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said.

“It takes every individual across the lab to do this …,” she said.

MPNHP is a partnership between the National Park Service and the Department of Energy. It was created in 2015 and spans Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash.
The national park will gain nationwide attention this summer. Local photographer Minesh Bacrania was given access to historic sites “behind the fence” and his photographs will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. His photographs also will be displayed July 8 during ScienceFest.

Abeyta pointed out the park continues to evolve as more historic sites are renovated to be included in the park.

“We are continuing to work … year-round and once we get buildings up to code, we will offer more regular tours,” she said.

Tubesing said tours available to the public are offered in sync to the tours offered at the Trinity Site in White Sands – it is open to the public twice a year in March and in October. For more information on the tours, visit here.. Pre-registration and temporary badging are required.

Tubesing said for him, the best part of his job is getting nonscientists excited about science.

“Seeing people’s faces light up,” he said, is a real perk, adding, “if I can get them interested and excited, that’s the first step.”

Linford said the highlight for her is sharing the history.

She pointed out that history “expands to so many stories”.

Just look at all that occurred in Pajarito Canyon – “that’s all happening in one canyon,” Linford said.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park Interpreter Phil Tubesing gives a presentation during the ‘behind the fence’ tour May 11. Courtesy/LANL

Manhattan Project National Historical Park Interpreter Phil Tubesing, right, shows Los Alamos County Fleet Services Manager Pete Mondragon the interior of Battle Ship Bunker during the May 11 ‘behind the fence’ tour. Courtesy/LANL

Manhattan Project National Historical Park Interpreter David Miko discusses the events that unfolded in the Slotin Building with Los Alamos County Councilor Suzy Havemann during the May 11 ‘behind the fence’ tour. Courtesy/LANL

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