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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Atomic Tourism in Nevada

Photographers and reporters observe atomic explosion in the distance. Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau

On April 22, 1952 about 200 reporters from across the country gathered on a mound of volcanic rock on the edge of Yucca Lake in Nevada. The journalists and cameramen were there to witness the detonation of a nuclear bomb on United States soil. Such tests had been in operation for more than a year, but for the first time, the press had been invited to record and broadcast the nuclear explosion. Dubbed "News Nob," the journalists' post was only ten miles from ground zero, giving Americans, from the safety of their living rooms, a front seat proxy to the explosion.

Upward Like a Huge Umbrella
One journalist, writing for the Department of State Washington Bulletin, described witnessing the blast: "You put on the dark goggles, turn your head, and wait for the signal. Now -- the bomb has been dropped. You wait the prescribed time, then turn your head and look. A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella.... You brace yourself against the shock wave that follows an atomic explosion. A heat wave comes first, then the shock, strong enough to knock an unprepared man down. Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away."

Ground Zero
The 31-kiloton bomb, nicknamed the "Big Shot" by the press and "Charlie" by the Atomic Energy Commission, was enormous when compared to the 13-kiloton and 20-kiloton bombs that the United States had dropped respectively on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II. The broadcast of the explosion awed Americans and officially touched off the atomic craze that swept the nation, for which Las Vegas, merely 65 miles away and the closest city to the testing site, became ground zero.

Nuclear Defense
Americans were in the midst of the Cold War, building bomb shelters and practicing air raid drills, when President Harry Truman selected 640 square miles in Nevada, once a part of the Nellis Air Force Base, as the Nevada Proving Grounds, the only peacetime, above ground nuclear testing site in the continental United States. It had been deemed necessary to conduct tests on nuclear devices in order to develop sufficient protection should such a device be used against Americans.

Atomic City
Las Vegans were only made aware of the impending tests two weeks before the first detonation. Although some Las Vegans were concerned about the possible dangers of such activity nearby, a major government publicity campaign and the potential for increased publicity -- and thus, increased business -- quelled many of their misgivings. As they had done with the construction of the Boulder Dam more than twenty years before, Las Vegans jumped at the chance to market themselves as a tourist attraction. As they had once touted their city as the "Gateway to the Boulder Dam," Las Vegans began promoting their hometown as "Atomic City."

A Vegas Attraction
Days after the first bomb was detonated on January 27, 1951, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce issued a stream of press releases excitedly describing the new testing grounds as one of the many attractions Las Vegas had to offer. As one official described, "The angle was to get people to think the explosions wouldn't be anything more than a gag."

Nuclear Innocence
After the April 22, 1952, televised broadcast of the bomb, atomic culture swept the nation, and Las Vegas became the epicenter of the craze. The mushroom cloud associated with the bomb became an icon for Las Vegas, adorning postcards, candy, toys, showgirls' headdresses and more. Las Vegas establishments like the Flamingo and the Sands hawked the Atomic Cocktail, the Atomic Hairdo and Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contests.

Atomic Tourism
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce issued a calendar for tourists, listing the scheduled times of the bomb detonations and the best places to view them. The Sky Room at the Desert Inn, offering a panoramic view of the Nevada horizon, was a favorite watch spot of tourists, as was nearby Mount Charleston. Many tourists packed "atomic box lunches" and had picnics as close to ground zero as the government restrictions would allow. On the eve of detonations, many Las Vegas businesses held "Dawn Bomb Parties." Beginning at midnight, guests would drink and sing until the flash of the bomb lit up the night sky.

One Bomb Every Three Weeks for 12 Years
In addition to generating tourism, the Nevada Test Site also brought thousands of military personnel, thousands of jobs and more than $176 million in federal funds to the region, two-thirds of which went back into Las Vegas' economy. For twelve years, an average of one bomb every three weeks was detonated, at a total of 235 bombs. Flashes from the explosions were so powerful that they could reportedly be seen from as far away as Montana. Scientists claimed that the radiation's harmful effects would have dissipated and been harmless once the shock waves reached Las Vegas, and they scheduled tests to coincide with weather patterns that blew fallout away from the city. However, as the tests continued, people in northeastern Nevada and southern Utah began complaining that their pets and livestock were suffering from beta particle burns and other ailments; by 1963 the Limited Test Ban was in effect, banning above ground nuclear testing at the site.

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