The Atomic Roadside

By Douglas Towne

Las Vegas knows how to throw a party like no other. But no matter how cutting-edge Sin City soirees are today, there’s no competing with the fiery bashes the city held in the 1950s.

Partygoers at these special shindigs witnessed a sight few have ever glimpsed: the almost unfathomable power of an atomic explosion. It was an experience that some revelers likened to “seeing God.”

Sedan atomic test detonation, Nevada Test Site, July 6, 1962

The Sedan atomic test detonation at the Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962, created the largest man-made crater and its fallout exposed an estimated 13 million people to radiation. – All images from author’s collection except where noted.

These atomic explosions were often the culmination of all night parties held at venues ranging from The Sky Room at the Desert Inn, with its panoramic view of the Nevada horizon, to the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel. Crooners primed the crowds, who might be sipping an Atomic cocktail that was a powerful mix of vodka, cognac, sherry, and champagne . “That ‘s the drink you don’t pour, when you take one sip you won’t need any more,” sang the Slim Gaillard Quartet in “Atomic Cocktail.”

Atomic explosion postcard for Binion's Horseshoe Club, Las Vegas

Postcard images of an atomic bomb test, Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club, Las Vegas, Nevada.

The merriment would climax around 4 am when detonations were scheduled. Winds were usually at their calmest near dawn, an import ant consideration to minimize widespread radiation fallout. Partygoers would raise their glasses in anticipation of the detonation, which was typically larger than the combined power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II. The resulting explosion was described as a fantastically bright mushroom cloud climbing upward, followed by heat and shock waves. The flash from some tests could be seen over 400 miles away in San Francisco. The surreal atomic backdrop outside Las Vegas was created in 1950, the result of President Harry Truman establishing what became known as the Nevada Test Site. Located 75 miles northwest of the city, the atomic detonations could often be seen from Las Vegas. Public interest in the atomic explosions dramatically increased after a blast was broadcast live on TV in 1952.

There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2014, Vol. 32, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

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