Visitors gather in front of the Schmidt/McDonald Ranch House and near the old well to hear WSMR Retired Public Affairs Specialist Jim Eckles talk about the history of the site. Eckles returns to the site as a volunteer almost every year and normally stays at ground zero to answer questions for visitors.
White Sands Missile Range hosted over 4,600 visitors to its first of two 2017 open houses of Trinity Site, the area where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The Trinity Site Open Houses usually welcome between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors per open house, however, since the 70th anniversary, two years ago, the numbers have increased to about 4,000 to 5,000 visitors.
The site attracts several different type of visitors; some who are local to the area, some who have traveled thousands of miles, some who are interested in the scientific aspect of the site, and some who are interested in the historical aspect.
"As good stewards, we are dedicated to providing open houses to the public to view this National Historic Landmark," said WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Eric Sanchez. "We provide this opportunity twice a year and based on the number of visitors it's clear to me how important this event is to the public. The detonation at Trinity Site ushered in the nuclear age and is a vital part of our history. It is an excellent opportunity to share that history with the public and to preserve this history for future generations."
Such a large crowd was not expected as the temperatures dipped down to the low 40s during mid-morning. Most of the day was cloudy and cold with sporadic gusts of wind, rain and sometimes hail. Visitors, however, braved the weather to visit the site that is rarely open to the public.
"It's only open twice a year and it's a fascinating site to learn history," said Jason, a visitor who traveled from Roswell, New Mexico, to visit the site for the first time. "It's pretty incredible to walk in the same places where people made history. These two sites (ground zero and ranch house) changed the world."
The site, which is located east of the Stallion gate near Socorro, New Mexico, was selected for its remote location and ushered in the nuclear age through the testing of a theory that was so controversial the test was kept under wraps until it was used in Japan. When questions about the explosion emerged, the test was covered up with the story of an explosion at an ammunition dump.
"This is where a theory was proven and where history was made," said Robb Hermes, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who has done extensive studies on trinitite at the site. "Before this it was just a theory, it's incredible to me how fast they worked to get this done."
Hermes and WSMR retired Public Affairs Specialist Jim Eckles volunteer for the event frequently. They provide "free answers" to visitors. Eckles provides facts on the history behind the event and Hermes provides facts about the scientific compound of trinitite and what his studies have found. Both can be found near the ground zero obelisk with a large "free answers" sign.
At the site visitors are invited to take a quarter-mile walk to ground zero where an obelisk marks the exact spot where the bomb was detonated. Historical photos are mounted on the fence surrounding the area of ground zero. Visitors can also ride a missile range shuttle bus two miles from ground zero to the Schmidt/McDonald Ranch House. The ranch house is where the scientists assembled the plutonium core of the bomb. Visitors are also able to experience what life was like for a ranch family in the early 1940s. Some areas of the house are currently under construction due to ongoing preservation efforts conducted by a non-profit organization.
The simplest way to get to Trinity Site is to enter White Sands Missile Range through its Stallion Range Center gate. Stallion gate is five miles south of U.S. Highway 380. The turnoff is 12 miles east of San Antonio, New Mexico, and 53 miles west of Carrizozo, New Mexico. The nearest city to make hotel reservations is Socorro, New Mexico. The Stallion Gate is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors arriving at the gate between those hours will be allowed to drive unescorted the 17 miles to Trinity Site. The road is paved and marked. The site closes promptly at 3:30 p.m.
The next open house will be Oct. 7 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The open house is free and no reservations are required.