Thinking about Vegas in the 1950s evokes some pretty wild imagery. During the decade, the city’s population exploded, neon-lit casinos and hotels sprang up left and right, Hollywood’s brightest stars flocked here to party, the first topless show opened… and it was also a site for the testing of nuclear weapons. In true Sin City fashion, even weapons of mass destruction were made into an extravaganza. Las Vegas wasn’t the only city where nukes were being made and/or tested; New Mexico, for example, had plenty of test sites and labs. It’s just that Sin City was just the only place that turned it into an attraction. The first bombs set off at the Nevada Test Site just north of Vegas were set off in 1951 (ironically, the same year the famous “Duck and Cover” PSA came out) and atomic tourism boomed through the decade. What started as an oddity was soon inspiring cocktails, bus tours, star-studded parties, even beauty pageants.
Two hotels famous for advertising nuclear tourism were Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and the former Desert Inn Hotel. North-facing rooms were prized for their unobstructed views of mushroom clouds and bright flashes from the Nevada Test Site. Pretty much any location along Fremont Street was prime for bomb-spotting, although it wasn’t hard to catch a glimpse of the tests even from the Strip.
One of the coolest nuclear tourism hotspots that you can still visit today is Atomic Liquors. It’s the oldest freestanding bar in Vegas, opened in 1945, and it was originally a little bar and eatery known as Virginia’s Cafe. But, by 1952, owner Joe Sobchik had caught on to the fact that his customers were more interested enjoying one of his top-secret atomic cocktails and watching bomb tests from the roof than in the food. He re-branded as Atomic Liquors, and a legend that still operates to this day was born.
But, nuclear bombs are more than just the shiny spectacle that Vegas nightlife made them out to be. To get a sense of just how powerful the nukes that entertained crowds on the Strip were, visit the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site), the actual location where these bombs were detonated. You have to get on a tour (which requires booking months in advance, along with a badging process and proper identification) to actually visit, but it takes you to some pretty jaw-dropping spots.
Tours take you to state of the art low-level radiation waste management facilities, the Sedan Crater (formed from an earth-shattering 104-kiloton thermonuclear device detonated below ground; the crater is 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 deep), the T-1 Training area which served as a radiological/nuclear weapons of mass destruction training center, and the Apple-2 Houses, a fake 1950s town (populated by mannequins) that was bombed in order to get an idea of how nuclear weapons would affect America’s communities. People who came to watch nuclear tests from Frenchman Flat in the 1950s would make a day of it, bringing their families and packing picnic lunches, and the tour lets you make a day of atomic tourism too.
Those tours depart from the National Atomic Testing Museum, just south of Las Vegas. The Museum is an incredibly detailed look at Nevada’s role in the development and testing of and culture around nuclear weapons, from Hiroshima to the Cold War and beyond. Although atomic tourism in Las Vegas died out when above-ground bomb tests were banned in 1963 (right after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962), the state still played a big role in the research, development and testing of other nuclear weapons. Today, the idea of atomic tourism has taken on a more… scientific and historical feel. Beauty pageants and parties are replaced by museums and tours of deactivated facilities. But, the Vegas’s showy version does share one thing with modern-day atomic tourism: they both touch on a fascination with the deadly, pioneering, and totally secretive mythology of the nuke.
More strange history…