New laboratory forged "the Army way"

An old technical area, above. An early Los Alamos housing area below. Note the lack of paved roads.

Although the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico provided some housing and office facilities, the new Los Alamos Laboratory required a whole new set of technical buildings as well as barracks, family housing and office space. And although Manhattan Engineer District commander Gen. Leslie Groves found the site ideal from the security point of view and the scientific director, J. Robert Oppenheimer of the University of California, Berkeley, found it idyllic as a retreat for scientists, those who had to build the Laboratory had great difficulty.

Located several thousand feet above the Rio Grande valley, far from sources of labor and construction materials, 40 miles from the nearest railroad, accessible only by totally inadequate roads, with insufficient water, no natural gas and a limited electrical supply, Los Alamos presented a real challenge to those who had to make the soldiers' and scientists' plans a reality.

The MED's site report, written in November 1942, predicted most of the problems. It was ignored, in the interests of time. Less than a week after it was written, Groves ordered the construction of barracks, a mess hall, officers' quarters, laboratory administration and technical buildings, a theater, an infirmary, apartments, utilities, streets and fencing. Some $26 million was spent on construction in Los Alamos during the war, approximately $200 million in today's dollars. Without a doubt, it would have been cheaper to build in almost any other location.

In January 1943, the estimated population of Los Alamos had risen to 1,500. By January 1944, it reached 3,500, and a year later it reached 5,700.

Each new influx of personnel led to a new spate of construction. In the first phase, before the opening of the Laboratory in April 1943, the Sundt Co. of Tucson, Ariz., had built or remodeled 100 buildings. Sundt was selected by Col. Lyle Rosenberg, the Albuquerque district engineer for the Corps of Engineers, because it was well equipped to handle the task and had just completed Camp Luna at Las Vegas, N.M., and was free to take on the job. Because Sundt had its own plumbing, electrical, painting and transportation departments, security was more easily assured.

Construction began on Dec. 6 and was scheduled to be finished on March 15, 1943. Groves wanted 20 percent of the housing ready by Jan. 2, and the technical buildings ready by Feb. 1. Within two months, Sundt completed 54 percent of the construction, although the company received the first blueprints for the technical area — plans for two buildings — only on Jan. 7.

Although they were quickly built, the Sundt houses were hardly high quality or inexpensive. Col. John Dudley, who supervised the early construction for Groves, answered the question of "why did we put those horrible houses there?" this way: "An act of Congress had established a civilian housing agency that set up standards for housing in the United States to be built during the war years. It specified what would go on the inside. For instance, it specified ‘showers, no bathtubs.' The manufacturers of bathtubs in the United States had ceased manufacturing bathtubs about 1942. So even if you tried to get them, they were hard to find."

Those scientists and officers fortunate enough to be housed in the Ranch School buildings had the only such facilities in town; hence the name, "Bathtub Row."

Bathtubs were not the only prized commodity. Dudley's orders included putting in coal stoves. "Some of us have had experience in cooking on a coal stove; not very many! Along about January-February of 1943 the housing criteria were outside our hands. Groves tried to get the criteria modified. He was successful in many matters but not in the housing problem," said Dudley.

Building a modern scientific laboratory presented greater problems. By the time the first scientists arrived on March 15, 3,000 construction workers had been at work for three months and had almost completed the administration building, five laboratories, a machine shop, a warehouse and a barracks. The work was far from perfect, and the morale of the workers, who had been building for three months without any idea of what they were working on, was low. They did not welcome the scientists/critics with enthusiasm.

Physicist Robert Wilson of Princeton University, who was to take charge of the cyclotron brought from Harvard for the project, recalled, "Almost straight away we were in a we-they situation. ...There was a lieutenant colonel in charge of putting in the facilities for the building housing the cyclotron. On my first visit, I spotted that the wires bringing in the power were too small; the cyclotron was off to the side some way from the power house and there was bound to be a voltage drop.

"Well, I pointed out the mistake to this colonel and that the wiring would have to be redone, and he decided that things had gone too far and that he was going to make a fight. … Oppenheimer had to write a letter to Groves about it, and eventually this officer was shipped off to the South Pacific."

The other accelerators presented similar challenges to the military- industrial mind. University of Illinois physicist John Manley arranged to provide a Cockcroft-Walton accelerator from Illinois and two Van de Graaff electrostatic generators from the University of Wisconsin for the meas rement of nuclear constants.

With Stone and Webster Engineering Co. in Boston, he had carefully worked out the design of the buildings. "I hadn't seen the ground on which the buildings would be erected," Manley recalled. "I tried to protect myself a little bit and also cut construction time by marking on the drawings that the contractor should take advantage of the terrain in locating the buildings. The Van de Graaffs were very heavy instruments and the accelerator from Illinois was a vertical machine that required a basement, so we'd specified that a basement be excavated for that machine and that there must be a good foundation under the Van de Graaff accelerators. Cost and construction time could obviously be saved if they selected the terrain properly," Manley continued.

When Manley arrived at Los Alamos, after traveling up the steep gravel road from Otowi crossing in a truck carrying the Cockcroft-Walton acceleration tube, "the first thing I wanted to see was the building that I'd specified be oriented properly back in Boston. There are enough jokes about the Army way so you can guess what I saw. The basement for the Cockcroft-Walton had been dug out of solid rock and that rock debris taken over to the other end of the building and used for fill under the Van de Graaffs, where there was supposed to be a good foundation," Manley said.

Manley, Wilson and the other newcomers pitched in to finish the construction of the laboratories. John Williams, a University of Minnesota experimental physicist, took charge of this effort and lived on the site as acting site director until the buildings were ready to house the physicists. This took some time.

Sundt was unable to get sufficient labor to meet the deadlines, and those it could find made trouble through their building trade unions. It could not get or install basic laboratory equipment rapidly enough to suit the scientists, who brought pressure on the company through the Corps of Engineers.

As Wilson's story indicates, these officers were not always sympathetic. Indeed, in some cases scientists were forbidden to enter the buildings until they had been formally accepted by the Albuquerque office of the Corps of Engineers, so that it was impossible to make minor changes, such as placing shelves, until the building was completed and accepted as specified in the original drawings. "individually and in detail these early troubles are of little moment in the history of Los Alamos," David Hawkins, the Laboratory's first historian, wrote. "collectively, they had effects, some good and some bad, upon the spirit and tone of the emerging project organization."

- Robert Seidel

Next: Robert Serber's lectures orient the staff.