Los Alamos New Mexico, once called the settlement of Otowi, and a relatively short drive northwest of Santa Fe and a city built upon mesas, is one of those western destinations which has quite a rich history. New Mexico history itself is one of the most diverse found anywhere in the U.S. Los Alamos history, especially that history during the mid 1900’s, revolves around the development of the Atomic bomb during the years of the Manhatten Project.
Another interesting part of the history of Los Alamos revolves around the years prior to the famous Manhatten Project. These were the years of ranching and agriculture which Los Alamos was active in. In the case of Los Alamos New Mexico, this earlier history, the ranching, the homesteading and agriculture was all impacted by the pressing needs of the 1940’s Manhatten Project.
The story of the Los Alamos Ranch School and it’s ultimate collision with the Manhatten Project is quite interesting.
Land of the Pajarito Plateau
At one time one of the most successful of ranches in northern New Mexico was the Los Alamos Ranch. The land for this ranch, just north of the present day Bandelier National Monument and along the Pajarito Plateau, was originally a Spanish land grant from the 1700’s which eventually was purchased by a group of midwest investors.
A Detroit businessman by the name of Ashley Pond took out an option on this land in 1913. By that time it had been both heavily timbered and overgrazed. Tree stumps were found everywhere. Pond recruited boyhood friends from Detroit including the heads of the Packard and Hudson Motor companies into the project. Interestingly enough, the basic plan for the land, if there was a real one at all, was to create a private club for the wealthy. The climate of northern New Mexico was considered conducive to healthy living and a resort for the wealthy there was not something unheard of.
The Pajarito Club
The Pajarito Club would be what the Detroit investors would call their private club. That being said, there never appeared to be a clear plan for it’s operation. Each investor had his own ideas of what it should be and friction developed. Ashley Pond, who was not an equal partner but was the operating manager, would often purchase furnishings and items for the group without their prior consent. Old lumber company buildings were acquired and some of the investors would send friends out to enjoy the climate at Los Alamos. Some of the partners also visited the club during the summer months with their families. In addition, some visitors were invited to the club as potential new members.
All of this was taking place as the shadows of World War One were building and the club’s investors becoming increasingly nervous about their investment under the day to day operation of Ashley Pond. By the year 1916, the Pajarito Club investment failed.
The Los Alamos Ranch School
Ashley Pond returned to the area in 1917 and took over a homestead on the Pajarito Plateau. Pond then obtained a log building and established the Los Alamos Ranch School that same year. The Los Alamos Ranch School was a boarding school for boys near Otowi, New Mexico, in what would eventually become Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The school’s goal was to aid boys in becoming strong young men through a life of rigorous outdoor living and classical education. Ashley Pond himself was plagued by bronchitis and other ailments as a child. Pond wanted to offer youngsters a chance to improve their health away from polluted, urban environments. The school started with a few ranch buildings from the old Brook homestead. In addition, Pond constructed what was called the Big House, a two-story, upright log building which housed classrooms, a dining hall, and school offices.
With that being said, the Los Alamos Ranch School, a health school, was a private school for the wealthy. The school’s faculty were mostly graduates of Ivy League schools and the academic course was college preparatory. The boys enrolled there who were between the ages of 12 and 18 were each assigned a horse. Activities included everything from community projects such as trail building to constructing sports fields and rifle ranges to swimming, horseback riding and tennis. The boys also took camping trips into the mountains.
The meals were planned with nutrition in mind and the students were told to finish their meals. If not, they could be sent home. Parents were sent complete reports on their child’s progress both academically and physically.
Enter the Manhatten Project
The United States search the country for a location for it’s atomic bomb program, the Manhatten Project. Requirements included remoteness, available water, an area that could be secured and one which was away from the coast and not really vulnerable to attack. Los Alamos New Mexico, high up in the mountains and located on meas tops was the eventual choice of the military.
As a result, life would change forever. Homesteaders were evicted by the military and the entire town became essentially a self supported secret military installation. Officially, as far as the U.S. government and it’s employees were concerned, there was no such place as Los Alamos New Mexico. Mail was addressed to a Santa Fe postal box number. If a child was born at Los Alamos during the war years, the birth certificate would also display a Santa Fe post office box number as an address.
The End of the Los Alamos Ranch School
The Los Alamos Ranch School, established in 1917, was another victim of the Manhatten Project. In November of 1942 the United States government purchased the school. The last graduating class of the school was in January 1943. The army took control of the land and buildings the very next month.
On our Western Trips site see the story of our visit to the Puye Cliff Dwellings.
Sites to See in Los Alamos New Mexico
Sites to add to your trip planner include the Los Alamos Historical Museum and Shop. Located at 1050 Bathtub Row, the museum features exhibits and books about the area’s geology, anthropology and history. Included is the Fuller Lodge which was the Los Alamos Ranch School’s main building.Admission to the museum and surrounding structures are free.
The Bradbury Science Museum located at 15th and Central which is operated by the Los Alamos Laboratory. Here you’ll find more than forty interactive exhibits, films about the history of the Manhatten Project as well as exhibits of various atomic devices. Admission to the museum is free.
Visitors during the winter season can enjoy the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area and summer visitors can enjoy golf at the Los Alamos County Golf Course. Nearby historic attractions include Bandelier National Monument and Puye Cliff Dwellings of the Santa Clara Pueblo and it’s history of the ancient cave dwellers.
Two excellent books on this subject are Los Alamos: The Ranch School Years 1917-1943 by authors John D. Wirth and Linda Harvey Aldrich and Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community by author John Hunner.
(Photos from author’s private collection. Fat Man atomic bomb replica photo from the public domain)