Chernobyl and Fukushima may be what first comes to mind about this topic today, but is Las Vegas, Nevada the actual birthplace of “Atomic Tourism”?
By: Ringo Bones
I think this now largely forgotten segment of Las Vegas tourism may have inspired The Killers to write the song Miss Atomic Bomb, but given the relative popularity of “atomic tourism” during the past few years in Chernobyl and Fukushima, probably only a handful of people actually know that atomic tourism actually started in Las Vegas, Nevada. And the 1962 atmospheric Nuclear Test Band Treaty probably consigned the glamour of such tourism to history’s dustbin.
Believe it or not, the state of Nevada’s 1950s era Atomic Bomb Tourism program is largely born out of finding a child-friendly alternative to the burlesque floor shows and gambling that became everyone’s perception when it comes to the image of Las Vegas, not to mention Atomic Bomb Tourism has some potential science education merit behind it. Nevada’s nuclear bomb testing spawned a spectator culture tinged with both profound fear and Sin City delight.
During the 1950s, the spectacular light show over Fremont Street that awed hordes of tourists at the time is most likely to be the initial flash followed by a mushroom cloud during atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in Mercury, Nevada – also known as the Nevada Test Site – a desert expanse just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The 1951 detonation of an atomic warhead 1,060 feet over the desert floor marked the beginning of the above ground trials whose mushroom clouds were easily visible from the nearby tourist magnet. Given that most consumer electronic devices at the time were vacuum tube based and therefore more EMP resistant than today’s solid-state based smartphones and tablet computers, the mushroom cloud is primarily the visual indication that an Atomic Bomb test is underway – as opposed to a busted smartphone.
In true Las Vegas style, the city capitalized on the atomic spectacle. The Chamber of Commerce printed up calendars advertising detonation times and best spots for watching. Casinos like Binion’s Horseshoe and The Desert Inn flaunted north facing vistas offering special “atomic cocktails” and “Dawn Bomb Parties,” where crowds danced and quaffed until a very bright flash several times brighter than the sun lit the sky. Women decked out as mushroom clouds vied for the “Miss Atomic Energy” crown at The Sands. “The best thing to happen to Vegas was the Atomic Bomb”, one gambling magnate declared. Are those the bygone age of an “Atomic Las Vegas”?