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How Trinity didn’t happen at the Sand Dunes

Brief by Ed Quillen

Area history – July 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

FIFTY-FOUR YEARS AGO this month, on July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in the Jornada del Muerto, in central New Mexico between Alamogordo and Socorro. (Curiously enough, the place was named the Journey of Death — or as some would have it, A Day’s Journey into Death — long before that event.)

But it could have happened in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, which was one of the eight places proposed for the Trinity test.

In 1944, as the Los Alamos National Laboratory worked to build the first nuclear bombs, a committee was appointed to find a test site.

According to Roger Meade, Los Alamos historian, the site-selection committee had three main criteria:

Flat terrain, so that the bomb’s effects could be measured at some distance.

Generally clear weather, so that the test would not be delayed by poor visibility.

Low population and isolation, for obvious reasons.

Less important criteria included federal land ownership and proximity to Los Alamos.

With those considerations in mind, the committee came up with eight potential nuclear test sites:

1) Tularosa Valley of New Mexico in the general area of White Sands National Monument.

2) Jornada del Muerto.

3) The desert training area near Rice, Calif., where Gen. George S. Patton’s tankers trained.

4) San Nicholas Island off the coast of southern California.

5) The lava beds south of Grants, N.M.

6) Southeast of Chaco Canyon, N.M., between Cuba and Thoreau.

7) Sand bars in the Padre Island area off the south Texas coast.

8) The San Luis Valley of Colorado near the Great Sand Dunes.

The first four potential sites were visited by the site selection committee, Meade said, and since two of those — Jornada del Muerto and the California desert training area — were suitable, the committee quit searching. There’s no record, he added, that the committee ever visited the Valley for an on-site examination.

Jornada del Muerto got the nod because part of the needed land was already in a military bombing range, and it was close to Los Alamos.

The Trinity site might have become a tourist attraction if the National Park Service had gotten its way 50 years ago — the Park Service wanted to make it a national historic site, open to the public.

But the military refused to relinquish control. It was a bombing range, and that use would have to stop if there was a constant stream of visitors.

However, it is open to the public on two days each year — the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October. In 1995, for the bomb’s 50th anniversary, Trinity was open an extra day, July 16.

If you’re interested in a trip, check out the unofficial Trinity web site at

And be glad, perhaps, that it’s a long drive, rather than a mere jaunt to the Great Sand Dunes.