Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Access is hard to come by at the Los Alamos branch of the park, which commemorates the top-secret effort to build the world’s first atomic bombs.

By Ian Laird | July 19, 2023

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Park ambassador and Laboratory archaeologist Jeremy Brunette discusses Pond Cabin with a tour group. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Manhattan Project National Historical Park isn’t your average national park. 

Most national parks are established by the Department of the Interior, keeper of the National Park Service. This one was established by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy.

Most national parks are located in one area. This one has locations in three states: Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington.

Most national parks are easy to visit. This one requires special access because many of its features are located in secure areas that aren’t open to the public. Nowhere is this more true than at the Los Alamos branch of the park, most of which is located “behind the fence,” as locals say, in protected areas of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Understandably the public continues to clamor for more access,” says Carrie Gregory, a historic facilities specialist at the Laboratory. The Lab is doing its best to accommodate these requests, offering carefully orchestrated tours in the fall and spring. Each tour can accommodate up to 25 U.S. citizens 18 and older, and Gregory says that all spots are booked almost immediately after they become available online through the Laboratory's Bradbury Science Museum. Approximately 250 people tour the Laboratory sites annually.

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The Battleship Bunker as it appears today.

Although the park has existed since 2015, it wasn’t until the fall of 2022—during a break from tours because of the coronavirus pandemic—that park interpreters updated informative scripts for tour stops, including Pond Cabin (home to Emilio Segrè’s plutonium research group), the Slotin Building (the site of a criticality accident in May 1946), and Battleship Bunker (which supported diagnostic experiments on implosion weapons).

Along with discussing the role of these facilities during the Manhattan Project, park interpreters describe the layers of history at each site. Many people—including the Ancestral Puebloans and homesteaders—occupied the Los Alamos area before the Manhattan Project took it over in 1942. “The biggest thing we push on these tours is that history is a continuum,” Gregory says. “The context is changing. As we move away from points in time, the historic context broadens, and more historical perspectives emerge.”

Fourteen other facilities on Laboratory property are part of the park but aren’t part of the tour—yet. Access to these sites depends mostly on Laboratory leaders, who must consider how touring might affect that Lab’s national security work, and the Department of Energy, which is responsible for facility upkeep on Lab property.

The National Park Service handles public-facing information. “The National Park Service is the primary interpreter,” Gregory explains. “They’re the ones that develop the interpretive plan and tell us what the interpretation should focus on. Then the Lab [which falls under the Department of Energy] does the maintenance, the operations, the historic preservation, and the interpretive activities.”

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In preparation for the Trinity test, scientists conducted the Creutz test near Battleship Bunker. The bunker held the diagnostic equipment for the test.

Most of the park’s facilities were built in 1943 or 1944 during the Manhattan Project, and their upkeep is challenging. “Two key words to remember when looking at these sites are temporary and expedient,” explains science historian Elliot Schultz. “The goal was to build the atomic bombs as fast as they could, and that is reflected in some of these buildings.”

Restoring the buildings is a collaborative effort. “We have worked really closely with our craft staff [employees who handle maintenance, construction, and utility work] at the Lab to try to get these sites ready in a short amount of time,” says program manager Cheryl Abeyta. As buildings are preserved, the goal is to maintain their historical integrity. Pond Cabin, for example, dates back to 1914 and is the oldest structure in the park. During its recent restoration, the original logs were preserved and new mortar was applied between them. Additionally, structural improvements repaired one side of the cabin that was sinking. 

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The Slotin Building as it appears today.

For the Slotin Building, refurbishment is more challenging because the building was used for Laboratory work as recently as 2015. During its many decades as a machining shop, partitions and equipment were installed. Today, yellow tape marks items that will be removed from the building. “The goal is to have it look almost exactly as it did in 1946, with replicas of the items from that time,” says park ambassador David Miko. 

Gregory is optimistic about future preservation efforts in the park. “We’re getting funding, and we’ve got a strong strategic plan for preservation treatments on the buildings,” she says. “I’m excited about the park, and I think it’s got a bright future.” ★