9 strange-but-true photos that capture Las Vegas' brief love affair with nuclear bombs.

On Jan. 27, 1951, a U.S. B-50 bomber dropped a nuclear warhead over the Nevada desert.

"A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella," said John Kerrigan of The Washington Bulletin.

The bomb, codenamed Able, detonated about a thousand feet above the ground, illuminating the early morning sky.


The thunderous boom echoed through the surrounding mountains and woke up the sleepy desert town of Las Vegas, some 45 miles away.

It was supposed to be a government secret. But despite what you hear on TV, what happens in Vegas rarely stays there.


A mushroom cloud during early atomic tests.Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

This is the story of Atomic Las Vegas, told through nine unforgettable photos.

1. Las Vegas took advantage of its proximity to atomic testing sites and turned it into a tourism boom. (Pun very much intended.)

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

"You brace yourself against the shock wave that follows an atomic explosion. "

Instead of saying "Pardon our dust," Las Vegas, in true Las Vegas fashion, doubled down.

Within days of the first test, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce issued a press release about their latest attraction — the nuclear testing site, even describing their town as "The Atomic City."

It quickly became, "Come, admire our dust, and see a show afterward."

2. Just over a year later, journalists were invited to take in a blast for themselves. The coast-to-coast broadcasts jump-started the atomic craze.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

"A heat wave comes first..."

Over the next 12 years, there was a detonation every three weeks, each one a source of immense pride, patriotism, and dollars for the city of Las Vegas.

3. Hotels offered panoramic views of the distant desert skyline for the optimum experience.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

4. The Chamber of Commerce published a calendar of the bomb schedule, including the best places to see the clouds.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

5. Tourists packed cars and drove out to the desert to get a closer look, carrying dinner in "atomic lunch boxes," of course.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

By 1954, nearly 8 million people were visiting Las Vegas each year. In 1950, the city's population was 24,624. By 1970, that number had ballooned to more than 125,000.

6. Women sported mushroom clouds as hairdos and as costumes in beauty pageants.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

They were found on billboards, marquees, and school yearbooks. One was even on the county seal.

7. The Nevada Test Site wasn't just a boom for travelers. The proving ground flooded the area with federal funds, and the site employed close to 100,000 men and women.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

8. But despite the economic and population booms, there was some fallout (literally and figuratively) from the Nevada Test Site.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

"...then the shock, strong enough to knock an unprepared man down. "

The government coordinated a very successful public relations campaign to downplay the potential danger and highlight the patriotic aims of this Cold War-era pursuit, even handing out guides to Nevada schoolchildren.

"A committee said there would be little danger to Vegas," Karen Green, curator at the Atomic Testing Museum, told the National Endowment for the Humanities. They said "if people were exposed they could take showers.”

But many working onsite and those who lived close by — who call themselves as "Downwinders" — developed serious illnesses and cancers due to exposure. Many saw their children, friends, and loved ones die prematurely as a result. In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which presented families monetary compensation and a much-deserved apology.

9. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put an end to above-ground nuclear experiments in 1963.

Photo via Las Vegas News Bureau, used with permission.

"Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away."

The tests continued underground for decades, but the public displays were complete. No more fanfare. No more pageantry and kitsch.

235 bombs later, the party — and this peculiar era in modern-American history — was over.

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