Nuclear Family Vacation in the Nuclear Age


nuclear family vacation postcard nevada test site

Greetings From the Nevada Test Site- Wish You Were Here!

Vacationing was a real blast in the Atomic Age!

For a merry-go-round of real nuclear family fun, no trip out west was truly complete without a visit to the Nevada Test Site for a bird’s-eye view of a genuine nuclear blast…the greatest show on earth!

In the 1950’s the Atomic Energy Commission decided that Utah and Nevada with its so-called “virtually uninhabited” territory, would be the perfect site for atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

With a ringing endorsement from the AEC confirming that Uncle Sam had taken all necessary precautions to ensure our safety, the Nevada Test Site, only 65 miles from Las Vegas became quite the tourist attraction.

At the rate of one atmospheric bomb test a month, it attracted crowds as large as Frank Sinatra drew at the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel in Vegas.

Thousands packed their Ray Bans and Coppertone and headed west for a rip-roarin’, rip snortin’, good time.

Danger Ahead?

atomic blast and illustration car

Nuclear Road Trip-(R) Nevada Test Site 1951

Most shrugged off the potential hazards of atmospheric testing especially the long-term danger.

In fact the danger lay in not doing the tests.

Most Americans agreed that the ultimate benefit of peace and security that only nuclear bombs would bring us was more than enough for the potential risk.

Of course there were outlandish allegations from some alarmists who attributed everything from rising cost of living to climate change, birth defects even throwing the very earth off its axis, to the tests.

The government debunked each of these fears.

It was, Uncle Sam said with a shrug, the same nervous Nellies who thought we should be concerned about the safety of DDT!

Our government insisted that the spate of nuclear atmospheric testings in Nevada were no more a danger than the new fangled TV transmissions racing through the sky.

Bombs Bursting in Air

Nuclear test site explosion

Rockets Red Glare, Bombs Bursting in Air….

In 1954, before I was born, my parents contemplated a family vacation out west to Las Vegas.

What could be more American than catching Sammy Davis Jr at El Rancho Vegas while taking in the sights at the Nuclear Test Site.

Zion National park and Death Valley were so ho-hum!

In fact in April of 1954, Mom had clipped out and saved the Sunday New York Times Travel section with the feature about the carnival of fun in Nevada that could be had “watching the bomb go off.”

For the Kiddies

A new attraction at the Nevada Test Site that year was one made especially for the kiddies- the appearance of “The Atomic Cowboy.”

Brandishing a foot long cattle branding iron with AEC ( Atomic Energy Commission) initials on it, our all American cowboy as brave and true at heart as any Marlboro Man, would ride a herd of cattle and horses over ground zero after the bomb detonated to determine the effects of radiation.

Yee-Ha! Young cowpokes like my 2-year-old brother would sure get a charge out of that!

Wild, Wild West

Nuclear vacation Nevada test Site

L) Vintage Ford Car ad 1953 (R) Nevada Test Site 1951

Thousands were flocking to Nevada to witness these bombs bursting in air.

Capturing the rugged flavor of the old west where the sky is not cloudy all day- except of course when the bomb goes off- the desert landscape became littered with lawn chairs and luncheon meat. Insulated tartan plaid coolers dotted the desert as sight seekers in pedal pushers and sunny summer separates made themselves comfortable for the countdown.

Before the first light of dawn, dazzled tourists, their hearts thumping in their newly purchased wash n wear resort wear, sleepy kids in their pajamas and Roy Rogers hats, gathered with ex-GI’s in Bermuda shorts wearing WWII issued anti-glare Ray Bans.

Kodak’s at the ready, the thrill seeking tourists were told by their guide what to expect:

nuclear blast

A Nuclear Humdinger of a Blast

“First of all one sees a very bright light followed by a shock wave and then you hear the sound of the blast. Then you look up and you see the fireball as it ascends up into the heavens,” he giddily enthused. “It contains all of the rich colors of the rainbow and then as it rises up into the atmosphere it assembles into the mushroom. It is,” he said with a sigh, “a wonderful sight to behold.”

As the pink clouds drifted across the flat mesas, the shock waves booming against the vacationers chests, a veil of radioactive particles gently floated over the test site. With the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, the heat from the blast stimulated a healthy radiant blush on the visitors, leaving them with an envied sunburned vacation glow.

And if you forgot your Brownie camera at home, not to worry- the adventure  would give you long-lasting memories. An experience that would stay with you for years.


And for those folks who couldn’t make any of the 126 tests detonated over 12 years from 1951 through 1962, no worries.
The wind would carry the mushroom cloud downwind, dispersing radioactive elements over the purple mountains majesty above the fruited plans, poisoning milk in New England, wheat in Iowa, and fish in the Great Lakes, making you feel just like you had actually been there.


© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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  1. Gary

    Hi, Sally. Your perspectives and visuals are always a pleasure; counterpointing and interrogating rather than privileging The Saturday Evening Post vision of post-war Americana never disappoints. This post reminded me of an obscure early ’50s atomic B- noir of sorts: ‘Split Second’ (1953) directed by Dick Powell about a group trapped by en escaped con in a Nevada desert ghost town and waiting for an atomic test after which, it seems, all will leave and resume some sort of life. Guess the realities of post-bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima wouldn’t have helped the Hollywood returns.


    • Thanks Gary. The film you mentioned sounds right up my alley and will see if I can find it on line. Since they whitewashed much of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the viewing audience of the time might well have bought into it.


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