Atomic City: Las Vegas’ Deadly Obsession With Atomic Bombs
All pictures in this post are provided by Las Vegas News Bureau.
Las Vegas may be known as Sin City today due to the plethora of casinos and entertainment offered but Vegas was actually known as Atomic City USA sixty years ago due to its deadly obsession with atomic bombs. During the peak of the Cold War, the United States’ experimentation of atomic bombs led to a special form of tourism never found anywhere else; Atomic Tourism.
During the 1950s Vegas become a huge tourist destination for anyone wishing to watch and celebrate the detonations of atomic bombs. Casinos would throw lavish parties and create specialised bomb-themed cocktails while women participated in atomic bomb-inspired beauty pageants.
While it may seem hard to believe that Las Vegas was so closely associated with something so dangerous, it was a reality that helped boost the local economy and population. The tourism boom led Vegas to become the gambling hot spot it is now, and it all began in January 1951.
The Nevada Proving Ground and Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce
On January 21, 1951, a US B-50 bomber dropped the first ever atomic bomb warhead at the Nevada Test Site, a desert expanse located an hour and a half’s drive away from Las Vegas. The atomic bomb, codenamed Able, marked the first of the US Department of Energy’s numerous nuclear bomb tests.
The flash of the bomb could be seen over 400 miles away in San Francisco, California and the power of the first test was stronger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
So, naturally, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce decided to celebrate the tests by designating the area a tourist attraction until 1963, despite nuclear fallout being one of the leading causes of cancer and other health problems.
Back then, however, people were told to just take a shower.
Detonations occurred every three weeks during the 1950s and even though it began poisoning livestock and crops in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce began advertising the tests as a form of entertainment and it quickly became huge.
They even published a calendar detailing the time of detonations along with suggested viewing points. Meanwhile, casinos in Las Vegas decided to capitalise on the nuclear tests and began planning special parties for tourists to celebrate and watch the detonations, leading Vegas to earn the nickname Atomic City USA.
People visited Vegas from all over America to watch the detonations and the city’s population more than doubled during this time as it quickly became famous.
Casinos like Binion’s Horseshoe and the Desert Inn began advertising hotel rooms based on their views of the nuclear tests and threw “Dawn Bomb Parties” where people would come together to celebrate the spectacle.
Most parties started at midnight and musicians would perform at the venue until 4:00 AM when the party would briefly stop so guests could silently watch the flash and mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb over at the Nevada Proving Ground.
Many casinos offered atomic cocktails, a mixture of vodka, cognac, sherry and champagne, at the parties and many women also began to wear atomic hairdos. The parties also featured some famous singers and musicians. Iconic singer Elvis Presley even performed at the casinos, though he was relatively unknown back then.
Meanwhile many tourists who didn’t want to visit casinos drove out to the desert with families or friends and carried their dinner in “atomic lunch boxes” to watch the detonations.
However, the atomic bomb celebrations didn’t stop there as multiple women were crowned Miss Atomics and wore atomic-themed outfits to beauty pageants.
The Miss Atomics
During the height of Vegas’ tourism boom, the city decided to combine two of its most popular attractions: atomic bombs and showgirls. While Miss Atomic Bomb may be the most famous, there were actually four women who became Miss Atomics through the 1950s.
The first was dancer and showgirl Candyce King who was named Miss Atomic Blast in 1952. King’s photo appeared in newspapers across the country with a caption describing the woman as “radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles”.
In 1953, the city of North Las Vegas voted Paula Harris as Miss North Las Vegas and gave her the nickname Miss A-Bomb.
In 1955, Operation Cue, a series of fourteen nuclear tests, was delayed multiple times due to high winds and earned the nickname Operation Mis-Cue. In the same year, Linda Lawson was crowned Miss Cue to “illustrate another mis-firing of the Operation Cue Bomb.”
The most famous and last Miss Atomic was Lee A. Merlin who was crowned Miss Atomic Bomb and was photographed wearing a cotton mushroom cloud on the front of her swimwear. Since there was no official beauty pageant that granted her the title, many have questioned why Merlin became so famous.
It’s now thought that Merlin is dead, though many mysteries still surround her life. Today, many researchers have discovered nothing about the mystery woman’s life and have pleaded family members to come forward with information about Merlin.
By 1954, nearly eight million people were visiting Las Vegas each year to witness the detonations. When Vegas first began promoting the spectacles the city had a population of 24,624. However, by 1970, just seven years after detonations stopped as a form of entertainment, Vegas’ population had risen to a whopping 125,000 people.
But what stopped people from celebrating the detonations?
The 1963 Limited Test Ban
The atomic celebrations continued until 1963 when the US signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, effectively ending above-ground nuclear tests. As the detonations stopped so did much of Vegas’ atomic parties. However, the city had already cemented itself as a popular tourist destination and would soon became the gambling hotspot it’s known as today.
The treaty didn’t stop the tests from taking place, it just moved them underground. In fact, nuclear tests didn’t stop in the United States until 1992 when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty was passed. By then, however, the damage was already done as animals and people faced the after-effects of the nuclear tests.
The After-effects of Nevada’s Atomic Bombs
New research has suggested that radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests were responsible for 340,000 to 690,000 American deaths between 1951 and 1973.
While the atomic bombs drew hundreds and thousands of tourists in every week, the Nevada Proving Grounds also provided a boom for anyone seeking employment.
The site hired around 100,000 men and women to work at the site, but working and watching so close to the bomb site impacted their health severely.
Soldiers working at the site showed significantly higher risks of cancer and a high chance of deformity in their offsprings. In addition to that, the people involved at the test site were 14% more likely to die from leukaemia, 20% more likely to die from prostate cancer and more than 20% more likely to die from nasal cancer than soldiers who didn’t work at the site.
It wasn’t just the soldiers present at the testing site that fell ill from the nuclear fallout. Livestock and residents of Nevada, Utah and Arizona all suffered from the nuclear tests.
Despite telling people that nuclear fallout was pretty much harmless, the US Government made sure that winds were blowing east or northeast during nuclear tests in order to avoid fallout over more densely populated areas such as Las Vegas and southern California.
Nuclear fallout spread to Northern Nevada and the states of Utah and Arizona and three to five years after the first few atomic bomb detonations, leukaemia and other radiation-caused cancers began appearing among the states’ residents.
Investigations discovered clusters of new leukaemia cases between the late 1950s and early 1960s in communities where the disease was previously rare or unknown. Those affected by the nuclear fallout adopted the name “Downwinders” because they lived “downwind” of the detonations.
As time passed, people in the affected areas suffered high rates of cancer and thyroid illnesses. Many people grew up watching their friends die prematurely from the fallout of Nevada’s nuclear tests.
In addition to this, a study discovered that the deadly effects of radiation were spread across the country through cow milk. During the 1950s, cows were exposed to nuclear radiation and their milk became contaminated, transmitting radiation sickness to humans across the United States.
The livestock and residents of Iron County, Utah, were among some of the first to report on the after-effects of the atomic tests. Between 18,000 and 20,000 sheep which were transported across Nevada to Cedar City in Iron County were exposed to large quantities of nuclear fallout in March and April 1953.
Sheep owners Kern and McRae Bulloch noticed the animals were suffering from burns on their lips and faces from eating radioactive grass and adult sheep suffered from blisters all over their bodies. Shortly after this, ewes began to miscarry in large numbers and new lambs were stillborn with deformities or were born so weak they were unable to nurse.
Ranchers in Iron County lost around a third of their herds and they, along with veterinary investigators, suspected radiation poisoning. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) provided Iron County agricultural agent Steven Brower with a Geiger counter, a small radiation meter.
At the sheep pens, Brower claimed that the needle on his meter “went clear off scale”. In June 1953, the AEC sent a team of radiation experts to Cedar City to examine the ill animals, but their carcasses had already been destroyed.
The AEC then forced its scientists to re-write their reports and remove any references to radiation damage and its effects.
Ranchers in Iron County lost a quarter of a million dollars due to the number of dead sheep, and they were told that the AEC couldn’t allow the issue to be set in court as the company was liable or responsible for “payment for radiation damage to either animals or humans”.
Between 1955 and 1956, five lawsuits were brought to court by Iron County residents against the United States government. The lawsuits alleged that the nuclear tests of 1953 had damaged their herds and the ranchers’ lawyer, Dan Bushnell, believed the “truth would win out” but he was wrong.
The first case, known as Bulloch v. United States, occurred in September 1956. Technical data from governmental studies and testimonies regarding the radiation damage gather by the AEC was not presented, leading witnesses to testify that the sheep couldn’t have died from radiation poisoning and had died from some other cause.
Dan Bushnell attempted to convince Judge Sherman Christensen that the government was attempting to cover up the damage it had inflicted via its nuclear tests. However, Judge Christensen ruled that the government was simply negligent in monitoring the tests.
Judge Christensen re-opened the trial in 1979 after congressional oversight hearings uncovered evidence of AEC deception in the original lawsuit. Dan Bushnell assumed that justice would finally be done, however, the US Tenth Court of Appeals rejected Judge Christensen’s findings.
They claimed that “nothing new” had been presented as evidence and saw no reason to overturn the judgement from the 1956 court case.
Almost ten years later, in 1986, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal over the court decision, destroying any hope of Iron County’s residents recovering damages from the US Government.
By then, however, many of the older-generation ranchers had died or were dying. Only two of the original families from Iron County were still sheep ranching as all the others had suffered huge financial losses.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which presented families of those affected with nuclear radiation monetary compensation and an apology. The new legislation created a $100 million trust fund to compensate citizens who lived downwind from the atomic tests.
However, the act was later amended to remove the $100 million limit and allowed uranium miners and Nevada test-site workers to participate in the compensation. According to reports, the act provides the following:
- $50,000 to individuals residing or working “downwind” of the Nevada Test Site
- $75,000 for workers participating in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests
- $100,000 for uranium miners, millers and ore transporters
However, there are additional requirements which must be met such as suffering from certain medical conditions, proof of exposure to nuclear fallout and evidence of employment for anyone who worked at the test site or as a miner. As of April 2018, around 34,372 claims have been approved and the value of total compensation paid at $2,243,205,380.
While atomic parties no longer exist due to the 1992 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, tourists today can still visit one of the most popular bars that had hosted atomic parties and offered atomic cocktails.
Atomic Liquors opened in Vegas around 1945 as Virginia’s Cafe but re-branded as Atomic Liquors during the 1950s when owner Joe Sobchik realised that customers were enjoying his atomic cocktails while watching the detonations from the roof. The site still operates to this day and is known as Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar.
In addition to that, you can book a tour to visit the Nevada Proving Grounds to see just how powerful the atomic blasts were. The tours take you to the Sedan Crater, which was among one of the final atomic bombs to take place above ground at the test site.
The detonation occurred on July 1962 and was responsible for exposing more than 13 million people to radiation. Today, it’s possible to walk along the bottom of the crater with no protective clothing.