A Visit to the Trinity Site

By John Bartholomew N7JY
and David Bartholomew WB6WKB

This is an account and comments about my visit to the Trinity Site, in April 1987. Myself (John, then-WB6SAN and now N7JY) and my brother David (WB6WKB) visited the Trinity Site on one of the two days out of the year when they allow tourists to visit the site.

Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was tested, on the morning of July 16th 1945. It is located within the boundaries of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which is why it's such a restricted area even though it is a National Historic Site.

Below are some messages that we saved from a local BBS. They have been edited (extraneous off-topic junk removed which had little to do with Trinity or atomic testing etc).

Msg #  3324 Dated 05-06-87 00:20:50
 From: JOHN BARTHOLOMEW
   Re: THE TRINITY SITE

A few weeks ago David, WB6WKB and myself took a trip to New Mexico, and did some traveling around, seeing the sites, and generally doing "tourist" type things. I made some mention about the trip generally, and thought that I'd make some special comments about our visit to the Trinity Site. First, the site is on the grounds of the White Sands Missile Range, and is not open to the public, with the exception of two days a year, the first Saturday of April, and the first Saturday of October. Tours are coordinated through the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce, and are escorted in a convoy by the MP's.

I got a number of comments about coming back "glowing in the dark" which although intended to be humorous, are not based in fact. The radiation level is about ten times the background level, and in an hour visit (more than enough, not much to see) you will get about 0.5 to 1.0 milliroentgens. Compare that to the 3 to 5 mR. that you get in an airline trip to the East Coast from the West Coast.

At any rate, there were several hundred cars leaving from Alamogordo, and we were escorted to the base entrance by the New Mexico State Highway Patrol, and from there on by the MP's. We had to drive quite a ways north, skirt some of the sand dunes, and eventually ended up in the northern end of the range (about 80 miles from Alamogordo).

The Trinity site is fenced off, with a rather tall fence surrounding the outer blast area, which we skirted and were led to a parking area. You then walk about 1/2 mile into the ground zero area. There are/were vans for people who couldn't walk the distance, but there were not too many people using them. The weather was very cold and windy, with a late winter storm coming in, but the walk wasn't too bad. Inside, there is a circular fence surrounding the inner blast area, where the crater is. It isn't much of a crater, very shallow, although it definitely is a crater. The area was once covered with "Trinitite" which was sand that had melted, and then hardened again. It is sort of green in color.

Back in the early 50's the Trinitite was removed, and the area graded, and covered over to reduce the radiation hazard. They had some samples there for us to look at, and to be honest, it was interesting, but not all THAT interesting.

Mostly, the thing that seems to draw all the people is the fact that it is an historical site, and the fact that for all but two days out of the year, the government says that you can't come there. Nothing will make people want to go more than a reason like that!

The original atomic device was placed on top of a 100 foot tower, the footings of which are still there. A monument made of lava rock stands in the center of where the tower was, and tells of what occurred there at 5:29:45 AM Mountain War Time, on 16 July 1945. There are some other displays, photographs, and a crater shelter, which protects some of the original crater floor. There are windows so that you can look inside.

The other part of the tour consisted of a visit to the McDonald Ranch, which is where the final assembly of the plutonium and the initiator took place. It is located about 2 miles from ground zero, and the blast blew the windows out, and damaged the roof. For many years it deteriorated, but in 1982, the National Park Service did some restoration work on the ranch house, and has restored it to what it looked like in 1945. About the time that we left the McDonald Ranch, it was starting to rain, a very cold rain. The mud was very slippery, and the military bus that they had us in was really sliding around.

All told, I wasn't really sure what I would see there, but the visit was not a wasted one. The desert plants have grown back in, the crater, (really more of a small depression) isn't very noticable, and testing of missiles goes on as usual out there. They were very security conscious though, and were a little picky about just what you could take photographs of. Armed MP's everywhere.

To come, CARLSBAD CAVERNS! And perhaps some other comments about the trip.

73, John, WB6SAN.

QUESTION:

I thought that when sand melted and cooled, you would get glass, not "Trinitite." But what do I know...

Msg #  3382 Dated 05-13-87 23:18:14
 From: JOHN BARTHOLOMEW

Well, when the heat and pressure, of which there was plenty of both, got done, it was indeed a glassy substance, but not smooth. It has plenty of bubbles, and is not even although glassy. To be honest, it wasn't what I expected, but then, what is?

QUESTION:

Well, I wasn't banging away at your credibility; I just think there is too much tendency these days to make up new words for old things. But if it's glass, it's glass, although for glass to be in an easily recognizable form it must be made from reasonably clean silicon and should be cooled uniformly and slowly to give time for the bubbles to rise to the top and leave the main mass. Then you get clear glass, I suppose. (What do I know - I've never done it...)

Msg #  3392 Dated 05-15-87 00:26:50
 From: JOHN BARTHOLOMEW

While reading your message, about if it's glass, it's glass, I thought about obsidian. Sometimes called "flint" it's the stuff of which Indian arrowheads were made. It is glass, or at least "glassy" but definately not like window glass. I heard some tales about a whole obsidian cliff in Yellowstone Nat'l Park that was (get this) CLEAR obsidian. I saw the normal black obsidian, and once found a nice big chunk of yellow and tan obsidian (topaz), but I never did see the clear stuff. I wonder if it really exists? Any Nat'l Park experts out there? To get back to the main subject, I suspect that the sudden intense heat and pressure produced something that had not existed before, and thus the new name for fused sand, Trinitite! Any other comment about it would be a comment that it was not even clean sand, as you would find at the beach, but just the normal desert dirt, gravel, and such that you would see if you went out into the Mojave desert. That might be a cause of the texture and color of the trinitite. 73, John, WB6SAN.

QUESTION:

Well, I guess if it were from sand (silicon) it would be glass. But glass is not crystalline, and the other things are. I think obsidian is crystalline. Certainly quartz is, and I suppose sand. But when melted, the structure disappears and it becomes amorphous. If cooled under appropriate circumstances, it will crystallize (thank goodness; that's where transistors come from!). With impurities, it will have a wide range of optical characteristics. So Trinitite is probably a legitimate name for the stuff, which doesn't occur in nature. Amber is interesting stuff; often there are insect fossils in it. I guess if there is a nuclear holocaust, there will be old fossils like me in some of the rocks that result...

Msg #  3403 Dated 05-16-87 00:29:13
 From: JOHN BARTHOLOMEW

Your comments are on the button. However, where did amber come from? Last I heard about that was that it was sap that had enclosed the insects, and hardened.

If you are ever close enough to a nuclear blast to get mixed up with the trinitite, you probably will end up burned, vaporized, crushed, or whatever. And what made me start to wonder, the Trinity test yield was about 20 Kilotons, and the H-Bombs that are in arsenals today use A-Bombs just to start things going! Like the blasting cap that sets the H.E. off.

The visit to Trinity site was more or less of historical interest, but it was the visit to Kirtland AFB (in Albuquerque) and the National Atomic Energy Museum, (with nearby Sandia Weapons Center) that really affected me. Admittedly, a lot of what they talked about was the peaceful (non-weapon) use of atomic energy, but after the exhibits on development, the Manhattan Project, and Trinity, the main thrust of the museum is the military use of atomic energy.

I'm not one to picket in front of the generating plants, or trespass at Yucca Flats, but it is enough to get you thinking. (And to think that all this started with comments about sand!)

---John

Msg #  3477 Dated 05-20-87 23:08:54
 From: DAVID BARTHOLOMEW

The flyer they handed out to us in Alamogordo before the convoy set out for Trinity said the Trinitite is a glassy substance and is still mildly radioactive, and if we saw any not to pick it up. We didn't see any (other than what was in the displays), but there were sure a lot of MP's making sure you didn't pick up any rocks or NOTHIN! However... we ended up (accidentally) taking along a lot of slightly radioactive DIRT which was mud on our boots getting into the truck leaving the place. It was downpouring rain on us pretty good, and when the mud dried out we bottled up some of it. Checking it with a Geiger Counter later (at home) it did register slightly... about the same as my keys, watch, etc. Any metal is slightly radioactive, gold especially.

-Dave WB6WKB


Further Reading:
Tourist information about Trinity Site.
Trinity Site Info from the Public Affairs Office at White Sands Missile Range.
Go back to N7JY main page
Go back to WB6WKB main page

Write to me at n7jy@qsl.net

Copyright © 1987, 1998 by John Bartholomew N7JY.