Between 1951 and 1992, the United States conducted 928 atomic tests at the Nevada Test Site about 65 miles (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas. Exactly one hundred of these tests were atmospheric, whose mushroom clouds could be seen for almost 100 miles (160 km), drawing fascinated tourists to the desert city of Las Vegas. Even as far away as Los Angeles, located some 240 miles (386 km) away, as the crow files, the unearthly glow of the atomic bomb illuminated the dark sky turning night into day. These extraordinary but fairly regular events were covered in leading newspapers with photographs accompanied by nonchalant captions.
“Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday,” wrote the Times after one pre-dawn test in the 1950s. “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955,” wrote another, which writer Geoff Manaugh calls “an incredible statement in any context, stranger than science fiction.”
An atomic bomb lights up the night sky over Los Angeles City, on March 7, 1955. The glow lasted 20 seconds beginning at 5:20.
“An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos,” observes the Wired, “is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.”
There are also pictures of people enjoying the spectacle that demonstrate the morbid fascination that many Americans had with nuclear weapons at the time. One such event was broadcast live by local TV channels of Los Angles on April 22, 1952. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning.
Geoff Manaugh puts this in eloquence.
In retrospect, however, the event has an unsettling naïvete, like a photo of school kids playing with mercury or a home movie of a parent renovating a baby’s bedroom with lead-based paint. That the terrifying and sublime effects of atomic explosions have always lent themselves well to photography takes on an especially strange irony here, in this metropolis of film and sunlight: that a city would so casually use this unnatural luminosity to take a photo of itself for the morning paper, careless of the danger as the seductive allure of these midcentury detonations drew near.
Related: How to Watch a Nuclear Explosion
Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955. Photo credit: Wesselmann/USC Digital Library
View of Atom Bomb blast seen in Los Angeles, 1951. Photo credit: McCarty/USC Digital Library
"Today's atomic explosion, largest yet set off on the Nevada test range, was clearly visible in Los Angeles, as remarkable photo shows. Staff photographer Perry Folwer was ready with his camera on a tripod on the roof of the Herald-Express building when the blast occurred at 5:48 a.m. Reporter Jack Smith, who also saw yesterday's explosion, points towards the great white flash that clearly silhouetted mountains to the east." Photo credit: Perry Fowler, February 2, 1951.
From the Herald-Examiner, May 7, 1952. "Atomic blast gives Los Angeles a early 'sunrise.' It was still night in Los Angeles at 5:15 a.m. today when the 'early sunrise' flashed momentarily on the northeastern horizon. The flash came from the latest atomic blast in Nevada. Photo above was taken from top of hill at Sixth and St. Paul streets. City Hall and its beacon clearly show."
An atomic bomb from testing in Nevada lights the sky in this photograph taken on March 1, 1955 from the Los Angeles Times Mirror Building.
Atomic blast seen from the San Fernando Valley, March 7, 1955. "Atomic fire lights pre-dawn valley skies. Blazing light from biggest atomic blast in current Yucca Flats, Nev., tests illuminates Valley skies -- 275 air miles away -- at 5:20 a.m. today, 20 minutes after explosion. Photo was taken from Mulholland Drive. Cluster of lights at left is Lockheed Air Terminal. At right is Burbank residential and business district." Photo credit: Bob Steele.
From the Herald-Examiner, dated March 7, 1955. "This is another version of how the atomic bomb blast in Nevada looked over Los Angeles from the roof of the Statler Hotel. Note the sharpness of City Hall (right background), the Richfield Building (right foreground) and other buildings. Ridge of mountains is also sharply outlined."
From the Herald-Examiner, June 4, 1953. "Evidence that today's atomic bomb, detonated at Yucca Flat, Nevada, was the most powerful of all in the series is revealed in this picture taken here. The sky is as bright as day, but even more notable is the fact that downtown buildings are not only silhouetted, as in previous atomic explosions, but actually are illuminated on this side, the side farthest away from blast source."
From the Herald-Examiner, May 5, 1955. "Early risers were a bit disappointed this morning when they went to roof of a downtown Los Angeles building to see the flash from the big atomic blast in Nevada. Because of heavy layer of clouds between here and there, they saw only a faint glimmer. Blast was at 5:10 a.m."
From Herald-Examiner May 7, 1952. "Today's atomic blast on Yucca Flat proving grounds in Nevada was plainly visible to early risers at 5:15 a.m. in Los Angeles. Photo taken from the roof of the Herald-Express building, shows blast lighting up the northeastern horizon."
An un-credited, undated photo of an 'atomic dawn' taken from an unknown location.
The best views were had from Las Vegas, and the city fully capitalized on the atomic spectacle. Detonation times were advertised beforehand and so were the best spots for watching. Casinos, hotels and inns flaunted their north-facing vistas, offering special “atomic cocktails” and “Dawn Bomb Parties.” In this picture, a mushroom cloud is seen from Las Vegas city. Photo credit: Citylab/Las Vegas News Bureau
The flash of detonation. Photo credit: Citylab/Las Vegas News Bureau
Tourists watch mushroom cloud from the poolside. Photo credit: Citylab/Las Vegas News Bureau
Photo credit: Citylab/Las Vegas News Bureau
Photo credit: Citylab/Las Vegas News Bureau
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