Thursday, July 18, 2024

Table of Contents

1.  Crater Loops, Little Gore Canyon, Flaming Aspen and Other Vanishing Splendor  

2.  Curtis Hill -- Cimarron River Valley

3.   Pecos River Bridge -- Fort Sumner, New Mexico 

4.   Crozier Canyon and Truxton Canyon -- Where the Waters Flow

5.  Crookton Cutoff -- Eagle Nest,Doublea, Crookton and Seligman

6.  Loma Alta, Lucy and the New Mexico High Plains 

7.  Tehachapi Loop Saved My Marriage 

8.   Travels with Mighty Dog in Search Of the Kansas City Southern;  Austin, Todd and Ladd; Arkansas and Oklahoma; Kansas and Oklahoma; Avard Subdivision and Other Oddities 

9.  BNSF Transcon in the Texas Panhandle 

10.  Abo Canyon:  Then and (S)now 

11.  Lombard Canyon and the Three Rivers 

12.  Mountains May Begin With Montana, but Fugichrome Ends With Me  

13.  Mullan Pass:  Mullan on my Mind 

14.  Kingman Canyon:  What am I Doing up Here?  

15.  BNSF Transcon:  Not Every Meeting is a Waste of Time 

16.  The Arbuckles are Worn Down, and I'm Headed There:  AT&SF and BNSF Railroad Photography From an Oklahoma Sinkhole  

17.  BNSF, UP and MRL in the Idaho Panhandle 

18.  Burlington Northern:  Trinidad to Walsenburg (Someone Built a Railroad Through Here?)

19.  Santa Fe on Curtis Hill (Things Ain't What They Used to Be) 

20.  BNSF West of Belen:  MP 27.8 to 31.9 

21.  BNSF at Flagstaff (and a little AT&SF)

22.  I Feel Like the Rock Island (Memories of a Stricken Railroad)

23.  Kansas City Southern:  Requiem for White Knights and Telephone Poles

24.  BNSF at Curtis Hill:  Where the West Begins

25.  Tennessee Pass:  Alas

26.  BNSF West of Wellington

27.  Cajon 2016:  Before the Fire 

28.  Union Pacific:  Aspen Mountain Through Echo Canyon

29.  Burlington Northern at Crawford Hill

30.  St. Louis Railroads -- as I Remember Them

31.  BNSF Across the Sacramento Valley:  Wild Burros and Cold Bears

32. She Caught the Katy and Left me a Mule to Ride

33.  Santa Fe in the Unassigned Lands

34.  BNSF:  Another Look at Crozier Canyon

35.  BNSF:  Colorado River to Goffs Hill

36.  Cajon Pass:  After the Fire

37.  BNSF in Oklahoma:  Avard Subdivision

38.  Back East!  Lost in the Trees

39.  Union Pacific:  The Craig Branch in its Prime

40.  Union Pacific from Point of Rocks to Granger:  Wherein Mighty Dog Clashes with the Serpent

41.  Trials and Tribulations of Train Photography

42.  The Frisco of my Youth:  Both Gone

43.  When That Evening Sun Goes Down:  Ellinor After Hours

44.  Nebraska's Sandhills in Transition

45.  BNSF:  Highway 47 to Mountainair

46.  Rock Island and Union Pacific on the Chisholm Trail

47.  Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Western Pacific Potpourri:  Arnold Loop, Echo Canyon, Aiken Hill, Sherman Hill and Donner Summit

48.  Lake Pend Oreille! or The Importance of the Angle of Incidence

49.  Sunset on the Missouri Pacific

50.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part One:  Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas)

51.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Two:  Clovis to Belen)

52.  BNSF Transcon:  Kansas City to Cajon (Part Three:  Belen to Seligman) 

69.  The Graying  

71.  O,Columbia! 

73.  BNSF:  Trinidad to Cedarwood 

74.  California 2020  

75.  Belen Revisited 

78.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part One 

79:  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part II 

80.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part 3 

81.  The Land that Swallows Trains -- Part IV 

82.  The Land That Swallows Trains -- Part 5 

83.  BNSF:  Trinidad Hill  

84.  BNSF:  Providence Hill

85.  Union Pacific:  Palisade Canyon

86.  Return to Colorado  

87.  BNSF:  Truxton Flyover to Sacramento Wash  (With Thoughts about the Desert, W.B. Yeats and the End of Life)

88.  Lawrence:  U-boats to Ditch Lights

89.  Union Pacific:  The Law of Unintended Consequences 

90.  Union Pacific:  Maricopa Mountains

91.  West of Gillette

92.  Mescal Summit and the El Paso and Southwestern 

93.  West of Dragoon

94.  East of Dragoon

95.  Union Pacific:  Steins Pass

96.  Powder River Basin:  Part One (BNSF)

97.  RIP:  Bear the Mighty Dog 

98.  Powder River Basin:  Part Two (UP)

99.  Union Pacific Along the Oregon Trail:  Farewell Bend to Hot Lake

100.  The Old Man and the Snow 

101.  Colorado in Fall   

102.  Sweet Soo

103.  My Favorite Western Grades:  Part One 

104.  My Favorite Western Grades:  Part Two

106.  Sundown:  Part Two

107.  Sundown:  Part Three

108.  Canadian, Texas 

109.  East of Tehachapi

110.  BNSF Across the Cascades

111.  Union Pacific:  North of El Paso

Union Pacific: North of El Paso

Southbound grain approaches Carrizozo, New Mexico.  About 20 miles west, the first atomic bomb was detonated.

North of El Paso, Union Pacific's line to Kansas City runs through the narrow Tularosa Basin.  To the west rise the Organ Mountains.  Then comes a narrow gap traversed by U.S. Highway 70 out of Las Cruces, followed by the San Augustin, San Andres, Hardscrabble, Mockingbird and Little Burro Mountains, all part of the same chain, stretching about 70 miles before disappearing into the desert.  To the east stand the Sacramento, Carrizo, Vera Cruz and Jicarilla Mountains, also all part of a chain that terminates at about the same latitude.

The southern end of the valley is dominated by White Sands National Park – massive sand dunes over 10 miles wide and 20 miles north to south.  The White Sands Missile Range sits immediately north of the park and extends toward the Malpais-Valley of Fires.

About 5,000 years ago, Little Black Peak erupted, and molten lava streamed south 44 miles, filling the valley four to six miles wide, 160 feet thick and 125 square miles in total -- possibly the youngest lava flow in the continental United States.

Mid-trains on northbound trailers.  The Malpais-Valley of Fires lava flow is in the background.  

The Trinity test site, location of the world's first atomic explosion, lay about 20 miles west of the small town of Carizzozo.

Following are (1) U.S.G.S. maps of the area, (2) an aerial view and (3) map showing Trinity site.

This shows the land just north of El Paso.  Interstate  15 runs north-northwest to Las Cruces, where U.S. 70 runs northeast through the gap between the Organ and San Augustin Mountains.  U.S. 54 and the Union Pacific mainline run north-northeast out of El Paso. 

Further north, U.S. 54 and Union Pacific run along the base of the Sacramento Mountains to Alamogordo, where U.S. 70 intersects.  White Sands National Park lies east-southeast of town.  The Missile Range lies north of the park but is not shown on this USGS map. 

Beyond Alamagordo, the highway and tracks run through Tularosa, the small settlement that gave its name to the surrounding basin.  "Tularosa" is Spanish for the rose-colored reeds growing along the banks of Tularosa Creek, which flows down west from the Sacramento Mountains along the north side of the village and attracted Europeans to an otherwise hostile desert.

 The first Europeans were driven off by Native Americans.   In 1862, Mexicans from the Rio Grande valley defeated the Natives and established a village. 

Tularosa is where General Oliver Otis Howard and his aide Joselp A. Sladen began their journey to meet Chochise.

Union Pacific and U.S. 54 run side-by-side north through the basin to Carrizozo, New Mexico, the county seat of Lincoln County.  Tracks and highway then begin a long climb out of the Tularosa Basin to the surrounding highlands, where the railroad diverges wildly through rugged hill country as sparsely settled today as in the 19th century.

This aerial image shows the national park and missle range, plus the mountains that bracket the basin.  The Union Pacific runs on mild gradients from El Paso to Carrizozo, where it begins the rugged climb out of the valley.  The Malpais-Valley of Fires is the black serpentine west of Carrizozo.  The first atomic bomb was detonated just across the mountains further west.

Inquiring minds may wonder why a railroad was constructed through land isolated and barren enough for an atomic blast.  The answer lies in the ghost town of White Oaks, New Mexico, which sat in a mountain canyon just north of Carrizo Peak and became a boomtown after the discovery of gold and coal.

In the late 1870s, John J. Baxter followed local Mexican prospectors to a canyon in the Jicarillo Mountains and discovered a gold vein. A tent camp quickly appeared, called White Oaks after a nearby stream, and soon grew into a major settlement, with four newspapers, two hotels, three churches, sawmill, bank, opera house, livery stables, saloons and casinos. A post office opened in 1880.  The census of that year showed a population of about 800 -- and would eventually reach 4,000. 

Several coal mines were also located near White Oaks, and railroad promoters -- as thick as wood ticks in the 19th century -- believed that the path to riches followed coal dust.  The Rock Island considered building south from Kansas City, while several ventures tried to raise enough money to come north from El Paso.  The El Paso and Northeastern eventually constructed most of the railroad used to reach White Oaks, a line that rain north out of El Paso to Carrizozo, then turned east and climbed the mountains into the canyon.  

By the late 1890's, both the gold and coal mines had "played out," and everyone left town.  Today (July 2024), a few derelict buildings remain.  When your author last drove through, the only functioning commercial establishment was the "No Scum Allowed Saloon." 

Northbound stacks beneath Mount Carrizo.

Stacks headed to Kansas City begin to climb out of the Tularosa Basin.

Southbound stacks in the Tularosa Basin.

Five different railroads attempted to construct a line north of El Paso.  Some had to create two corporations:  one in New Mexico and a second for Texas, which in the 19th century required that all railroads operating in the state incorporate there.  In the 21st century, railroads need incorporate in only a single state even if they operate in many -- due to the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution's Commerce Clause.  The Court has held that states may not enact laws that unduly impede interstate commerce.  Thus, railroads cannot be required to incorporate in Texas -- or in any other state.  Railroads are free to choose their venue of incorporation.  

The first company to build north of El Paso was the El Paso, St. Louis and Chicago Railway and Telegraph Company, formed in 1885, which graded five miles of roadbed and laid tracks before going broke.  Next came the Kansas City, El Paso and Mexico Railroad.  Its engineers began grading south from a location five miles north of the original construction, and eventually the northern five miles of graded road bed were connected to the original rails, though not without surveying problems.

But there were no tracks yet on the northern segment, so the Texas and Pacific began delivering ties, bridge timbers and rails.  Track layers moved north on the new grade, and the last rail was placed November 30, 1888.

The KCEP&M then borrowed the construction locomotive and several coaches from the T&P and ran two excursions 10 miles to the end of the line, where the passengers debarked and partook of water from wells which the company had drilled to slake the thirst of the era's steam engines.  Everyone considered the new railroad a magnificent success.

A UP work train rolls downgrade into the Tularosa Basin.

Trains meeting beneath the Sacramento Mountains.

Southbound grain at Carrizozo, New Mexico.

The day after the second excursion, the Texas and Pacific sued the KEP&M for unpaid bills of approximately $20,000.00, the equivalent of about $660,000.00 today.

The railroad's president told the local El Paso newspaper that the lawsuit was a "temporary embarrassment" and would be quickly resolved.  Investors felt otherwise, and funds for further construction evaporated into the dry desert air.  The Texas and Pacific purchased the ten miles of track in 1892 but declined to pursue further construction. 

The ten miles then sat forlornly in the sand and rocks for several years until a 19th century real estate promoter named Charles Eddy burst upon the scene.  In that era, real estate promoters were the equivalent of modern "dot com" entrepreneurs or electric vehicle manufacturers.  There was money to be made and they (the promoters) were willing to make it.

Eddy came south from Colorado and with his brother and other investors established a settlement near current Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Originally, the town was called "Eddy," but after the brothers discovered mineral springs that they thought would cure polio, tuberculosis and other maladies, they changed the name to "Carlsbad," after the famous Karlsbad Spa in Bohemia.

In 1888, Pat Garrett, the former Lincoln County Sheriff who corralled Billy the Kid, joined the Eddy brothers in building canals to divert water from the Pecos River into town.  Without water, the land was useless.  With water, Carlsbad could at least exist, if not flourish, but the repeated saga of Western land promotors selling desert property is a story as old as the United States.  The promoters prospered; the landowners not so much.

These northbound stacks at Coyote Siding have climbed out of the Tularosa Basin.  Above the power is the dark line of the Malpais-Valley Fires lava flow.

Southbound grain beneath the Sacramento Mountains.

A meet at Coyote Siding.

Eddy next turned his attention to a potential railroad from El Paso to Liberal, Kansas, which would connect with the Rock Island to Kansas City and Chicago.  He launched a grand proposal to that company's management, which took a quick look at the sand dunes north of El Paso and turned him down.

Promoters are no more bothered by rejection than pigs by slop.  Eddy next directed his blandishments toward a group of Pennsylvania coal barons, who in 1897 traveled by private rail car to El Paso by way of Houston and the Texas and Pacific.  In a well-timed stroke of good fortune, Eddy took them on a camping trip north into a desert blooming from recent heavy rain.  Apparently, he convinced them that southern New Mexico could be a land of golden opportunity.  Or else they simply thought that in 19th century America, it was impossible to lose money building a railroad.  Either way, they agreed to back Eddy's project.

Southbound stacks begin the descent into Tularosa Basin.

Coyote Siding -- out of the Basin.

Stacks passing at Coyote Siding.

The El Paso and Northeastern Railway Company was incorporated in New Mexico, while the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad Company was incorporated in Texas.  Charles Eddy was the president of both; his brother John was general manager.  

From the Texas and Pacific, the EP&N purchased the ten miles of track of the old KCEP&M but used only the first four.  The route into New Mexico was virtually flat between mountain ridges, and the graders moved quickly north, followed by the track gangs.

Eighty-five miles north of El Paso sat a huge ranch recently purchased by Eddy.  With surveying of city lots already underway, Alamagordo, New Mexico was born -- for many years the headquarters of the new railroad.  John Eddy gave the new town its Spanish name -- "fat cottonwood" in English -- after a grove of trees along the Pecos River.

Southbound autos in the high desert.

Empty grainer headed north behind BNSF power.

From Alamagordo, the railroad branched in two directions.  One ran east into the heart of the Sacramento Mountains -- one of the most spectacular lines in the world.  Beginning at 4,322 feet, the tracks climbed to 9,069 feet in only 32 miles, with one switchback and a ruling grade of 6.4 percent!  This line carried mostly timber from the mountains, as well as tourists to and from the resort at Cloudcroft.  However, when the timber company switched to trucks, the railroad was doomed and was abandoned in 1947.

The second line ran north 57 miles to Carrizozo, the Spanish vernacular for reed grass, then turned east and climbed 21 miles into the mountains toward White Oak and the coal fields.  The line east of Carrizozo also contained a switchback, with a 4.3 percent ruling grade.

As discussed, the coal fields played out rapidly, and the line from Carrizozo to White Oak was also abandoned.  However, Eddy's railroad now extended 150 miles north of El Paso, and with his usual salesmanship he was able to convince the Rock Island to meet him at Santa Rosa, 128 miles north of Carrizozo, along the Pecos River.  Construction of this line would create a new transcontinental passage from Chicago to Los Angeles, with the Rock Island carrying trains from Chicago to Santa Rosa, Eddy's railroad bringing that traffic south to El Paso, and the Southern Pacific then extending west to the Pacific.  

To make this dream a reality, Eddy formed a new venture in 1900 -- the El Paso and Rock Island Railway Company.  Construction proceeded 60 miles north of Carrizozo to "Corona," "crown" in English, the highest point on the mainline at 6,724 feet, then further north to Santa Rosa, the junction with the Rock Island, which subsequently completed a 132 mile branch running northwest from Tucumcari, New Mexico, to lucrative coal fields at Dawson.

Out of the Tularosa Basin, the land is relatively flat, sloping mildly upgrade from south to north.  Here northbound stacks, headed by BNSF 6744, are headed to Corona.

Southbound grain, with KCS 4041 pulling hard, prepares to enter the basin.

A rail train at Coyote Siding.

Eddy eventually sold his railroad to the Phelps Dodge Corporation, which at the time also owned the El Paso and Southwestern, a line which in the early 20th century served several copper and coal mines and competed with the Southern Pacific for traffic between El Paso and points west.  [For a complete discussion of the EP&SW, see]  

Phelps Dodge used both lines to supply coal for its copper mines and smelters.  Eddy's line became the eastern operating division of the EP&SW, which eventually was purhased by Southern Pacific.  The line from El Paso west was later abandoned, but the line north became a major part of SP's system.  When the Rock Island was liquidated in bankruptcy in the early 1980's, SP purchased the tracks from Santa Rosa to Kansas City, completely refurbishing them for high speed running.

Your author remembers seeing the line west of Topeka, Kansas, as the SP contractors tore out the old rail and rotting cross-ties.  The roadbed was completely rebuilt, new ties inserted and new rail laid.  Upon completion, the line looked as though it had recently been constructed from scratch.

Northbound stacks beside the Malpais-Valley of Fires lava flow.

Northbound grain.

Today (July 2024) the line north of El Paso is a major Union Pacific gateway for traffic between the Midwest and Pacific.  However, because of Union Pacific's current practice of running immensely long trains -- some almost two miles! -- traffic can be sparse.  The images in this article were all taken in July 2022, when the interval between trains could stretch hours.  Occasionally, multiple trains would show up, but the more common practice was long stretches of nothing.  On the average, your author saw 4-5 trains in the daylight. 

Three trains at Carrizozo.

If you have not seen this country, no words can do it justice.  But I will try.  If I only had one sentence to describe the land north of El Paso, it would be:  the government chose this land to detonate the first atomic bomb.

The Tularosa Basin is endorheic, meaning that no water flows out of it, sloping from about 4000 feet in the south (at the Texas-New Mexico border) to the Chupadera Mesa in the north at approximately 6500 feet.  The Union Pacific tracks climb northeast out of the basin to the summit at Corona.  Today this high desert village supports about 100 people and does not look much like the summit of a mainline railroad.  The most challenging grade occurs north of Carrizozo and ends at the appropriately named Coyote Siding.

U.S. 380 runs southeast to northwest through the Malpais-Valley of Fires and presents an otherworldly landscape of dark lava sculpted into elongated knives, spears and huge barnacles.  Sturdy desert plants have attempted a toe-hold here and there, but the overwhelming impression is desolation.  The lava flow is around 5,000 years old, and almost nothing has changed in those 5,000 years.  If nothing much changes in 5,000 years, imagine the geological time scale necessary to produce the earth that we live in today.  From that viewpoint, concerns about the next one hundred years or so shrink to oblivion.


Rainfall here is infrequent, but when it comes, it can overwhelm.  While photographing the line, your author was waiting beside the tracks next to a signal, hoping to see a light come on.  (The signals remain dark until a train hits the block.)  Bear the Mighty Dog was sleeping in the back seat of the Jeep.  Quite rapidly, the sky drew dark, as though the blinds had been closed on the only window in a narrow room.  An almost black funnel cloud appeared in the west.  It looked to me like a tornado, and I have seen a few.  I could not tell if it was moving toward us or not, but I decided to start the Jeep and drive as fast as I could in the opposite direction.  Just then the signal turned green.

Here it comes!

"Well," I thought, "I can wait just a little bit."  I sometimes take images involving storm clouds.  Sometimes sunlight peaks through as the train approaches.

So I waited a little bit.  The train arrived in about five minutes from the south.  The sun did not peak through.  I did not take a shot.  The storm cloud to the west dissipated as rapidly as it had formed.  It did not rain a drop.  Bear did not wake up.

Northbound out of the basin.

Although it did not rain on me that day, it did storm during the night the first atomic bomb was detonated.  Scores of books and movies have been written and made about the creation of this ultimate weapon, and your author cannot possibly duplicate their scope and grandeur, but a few words are appropriate.  

The sheer size of the Manhattan Project is difficult to image.  At one time, it employed about 130,000 people during the most intense period of the Second War World. 

European physicists had developed the theories of special and general relativity (Einstein) and quantum mechanics (Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg and many other famous men), which led directly to the realization that the atom, indeed all matter, is a form of energy that, if released, beggars the imagination.  

Einstein's famous e=mc2 (energy equals mass times the velocity of light squared) gives an inkling of the potential fury contained in something as simple as a rock or a coffee table.  Such energy, fortunately for humans and other life, is unobtainable, but careful anyalysis revealed that a rare isotope of uranium (U235) was unstable enough to, in sufficient quantity and under proper conditions, produce a chain reaction releasing nuclear particles.

Physicists in the United States discovered that when the common uranium isotope U238 is bombarded with the nuclei of heavy hydrogen, it sythesizes the extremely rare element plutonium, which also can create a nuclear chain reaction under the proper conditions.  

Southbound grain dodging storm clouds.

Coyote Siding.

The United States feared that Nazi Germany was trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and so the race was on.

The Army Corps of Engineers established three massive projects:

1.  Los Alamos, New Mexico -- Los Alamos sits on a high plateau, serrated on its edges by deep canyons.  Isolated and remote to this very day, the scenery is spectacular.  Work centered on the engineering necessary to create something that would explode, as opposed to something that would simply dissipate deadly radiation like steam.  The United States was fighting a war and wanted a bomb.  Creating a nuclear explosion was an engineering puzzle of the first order that was solved magnificently.

2.  Oak Ridge, Tennessee -- Located in the forest and hill country of rural east Tennessee, Oak Ridge was as isolated as Los Alamos, a perfect spot to produce U235, the uranium isotope needed to produce a fission bomb.  U235 makes up about 0.72% of natural uranium. Unlike the predominant isotope U238, it can sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  Obtaining U235 from uranium requires an elaborate chemical process in which a huge amount yields a tiny parcel.  Oak Ridge, thus, was primarily a chemistry challenge -- again solved beautifully.

3.  Hanford, Washington -- In this barren desert flatland along the eastern Columbia River, the United States constructed the first plutonium manufacturing reactor.  Because plutonium is highly toxic, and because the scientists, engineers, soldiers and bureaucrats were making up procedures as they went along, creating machines and materials that had not before existed, Hanford was an exercise in containment, an exercise at which all concerned failed miserably.  Both ground and water in and around Hanford were highly contaminated.  Employees at the site and residents of nearby towns suffered abnormally high rates of cancer, as did residents of the small village of Hanford and Native Americans, both removed against their will.

Northbound grain beside the Sacramento Mountains.

Northbound grain meets southbound coal.

The Manhattan Project produced two fission bombs, one of U235 ("Little Boy") and one of plutonium ("Fat Man").  In a fission bomb, U235 or plutonium is placed under extreme pressure, causing atoms to release atomic particles sufficently rapidly to explode.  Little Boy used what amounted to a gun and bullet to trigger the explosion.  Fat Man used an implosion which placed the plutonium under intense pressure.

The first bomb was made with plutonium and tested at the Trinity Site, about 20 miles west of today's Union Pacific tracks.  The name Trinity was chosen by Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, from the poetry of John Donne.

In 1962, Manhattan Project leader Gen. Leslie Groves wrote to Oppenheimer to ask about the origins of the name.  Oppenheimer replied, “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love.” Oppenheimer then quoted “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”:

Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery,
      Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,
I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
         For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
         So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
         The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
         All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
         By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.

In typical John Donne fashion, this poem points out that in all of life, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Thus, before God can raise me (eternal life), he must throw me down (death).

“That still does not make a Trinity," Oppenheimer continued, "but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’ Beyond this, I have no clues whatever.”

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 

John Donne's poetry employs contradiction to the highest degree -- thus, his most famous line:  "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."  

In the poem immediately above, Donne points out that "reason, your viceroy in me" should defend him against God's "enemy."  But reason is "captiv'd."  Donne is "betroth'd unto your enemy" and labors in vain "to admit you."  In other words, reason does not help Donne with major Christian doctrines such as the Crucifixion, the Resurrection or the Trinity.  Those doctrines, Donne implies, are beyond reason.  He wants to believe but needs help that reason cannot supply.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul claimed that the doctrines of Christianity appear as nonsense to the outside world:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  (1 Corinthians 1:21; KJV)
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.  (1 Corinthians 2:14; KJV)  

Thus, Martin Luther believed that "reason" was the enemy of belief, though he used stronger language:

Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom.  (Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition, v. 16, p. 142.)

Donne asks God to "enthrall me" so that he "shall be free."  Before he can be chaste, God must "ravage me" -- an interesting image for a religious poem, though no more so than Luther's, but both men were nothing if not startling.

A southbound manifest approaches Carrizozo.

Northbound stacks leaving Carrizozo.

A massively long manifest has left the Tularosa Basin and is winding through the high desert toward Corona.

DPU on same train.

Perhaps Oppenheimer chose the name "Trinity" because he believed, even if only subconsciously, that the idea of winning peace through a nuclear bomb was as beyond reason, was as "foolish," as the idea of a "three-person'd God."  

The test was conducted in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead) Desert about 20 miles west of Carrizozo.  The Army acquired the David McDonald ranch and transformed the main house into a field laboratory.  Compania Hill 20 miles northwest of Ground Zero served as a "VIP scenic overlook."  To some degree, the initial test was like a carnival, which only heightened the sense of foolishness.

You can drive to Ground Zero today if you know where you are going and your vehicle can withstand the pounding of the desert.  The National Park Service maintains the road and has erected a small obilisk marking the spot.

The URL immediately above describes the location of Trinity, explains various details about gaining access and also contains the following explanation for the skittish:

Some people are concerned about radiation exposure at the site. Radiation at Trinity is ten times higher than the surrounding areas; you can expect that within one hour of being there, half of the radiation that you would typically receive within an entire day will impact you. If you are concerned about radiation exposure, make sure that you wear long sleeves, pants, and a hat (this attire will also protect you from the desert sun and wind).

About 20 miles east of the Trinity Test Site.

Carrizozo, New Mexico.

The Army constructed a steel tower so that the bomb could be detonated above ground.  Prefabricated sections were shipped by rail on the Southern Pacific to Carrizozo and then trucked to the site.  Concrete footings were poured 20 feet deep into the hard desert caliche.  Braced with cross struts, the tower rose 100 feet and was topped by an oak platform sheltered on three sides and roofed with corrugated iron.  The open side faced toward a camera bunker on the west.  A heavy duty winch was installed to hoist the bomb.  

No one knew if the device would work, so tensions ran high.  At least a few worried that an explosion would ignite the atmosphere and perhaps destroy the earth, though the theoretical physicists had assured everyone that this would not happen.  Still, everyone was antsy.

General Leslie Groves later wrote about Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicists who had created the first functioning atomic pile at the University of Chicago and had won a Nobel Prize:

Fermi . . . offered to take wagers from his fellow scientists on whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world.  He had also said that after all it wouldn't make any difference whether the bomb went off or not because it would still have been a well worthwhile scientific experiment.  For if it did fail to go off, we would have proved that an atomic explosion was not possible.

At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, Los Alamos scientists detonated the first atomic bomb -- a plutonium implosion device.  The test had been scheduled for 4 a.m., but a violent desert thunderstorm postponed the detonation until 5:30.

When the bomb detonated, an intense flash, brighter than anything seen before on earth, illuminated the desert.

Richard Feynman, one of the Los Alamos physicists and another Nobel Prize Winner, described it:

They gave out dark glasses that you could watch it with. Dark glasses! Twenty miles away, you couldn't see a damn thing through dark glasses. So I figured the only thing that could really hurt your eyes (bright light can never hurt your eyes) is ultraviolet light. I got behind a truck windshield, because the ultraviolet can't go through glass, so that would be safe, and so I could see the damn thing. 

Time comes, and this tremendous flash out there is so bright that I duck, and I see this purple splotch on the floor of the truck. I said, "That's not it. That's an after-image." So I look back up, and I see this white light changing into yellow and then into orange. Clouds form and disappear again--from the compression and expansion of the shock wave. 

Finally, a big ball of orange, the center that was so bright, becomes a ball of orange that starts to rise and billow a little bit and get a little black around the edges, and then you see it's a big ball of smoke with flashes on the inside of the fire going out, the heat. 

All this took about one minute. It was a series from bright to dark, and I had seen it. I am about the only guy who actually looked at the damn thing--the first Trinity test. Everybody else had dark glasses, and the people at six miles couldn't see it because they were all told to lie on the floor. I'm probably the only guy who saw it with the human eye. 

Southbound coal load.

Climbing the grade out of the Tularosa Basin.

As it turned out, several people viewed the cataclysm with their naked eyes.  Another Nobel winner, American Isaac Rabi, wrote this description:

We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly.  Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced.  Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen.  It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you.  It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye.  It was seen to last forever. . . . Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green.  It looked menacing.  It seemed to come toward one.
Climbing the northbound grade.


A clean and shiny Ferromex sandwiched between tarnished Armour Yellow.

Southbound on the high desert.  This train is about as close to the Trinity Site as was the VIP viewing area.

The bomb obliterated the steel tower, blasted a crater almost 1,200 feet across and 10 feet deep, and fused sand into a green glassy substance called “trinitite.”  In 1952, most of the Trinitite was removed and buried, and the crater was filled. 

The Trinity bomb (nicknamed the "Gadget") yielded about 21 kilotons of TNT, about 1.5 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  The light from the explosion could be seen more than 280 miles away, as far as Amarillo, Texas.

Richard Rhodes has written a Pulitzer Prize winning book -- The Making of the Atomic Bomb -- which describes in detail the events leading to the Trinity Test, the test itself and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I highly recommend the volume to all.  It is a brilliant book.  I do, however, wish to quibble with one small sentence on page 677:

A bomb exploded in a desert damages not much besides sand and cactus and the purity of the air.

The government told the people living in the Tularosa Basin that the blast was an accidental ammunition explosion -- a plausible enough explanation during war.  Because of the high secrecy of the project, the Army did not evacuate residents in advance, nor warn them of potential danger.  Even after bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war and need for secrecy, government officials still failed to inform Tularosa Basin residents about the potential effects of the blast. In fact, when asked, they denied any potential hazard.

One of the most immediate impacts of Trinity was a spike in infant deaths. In 1947, an alarmed health care provider in Roswell, Kathryn S. Behnke, wrote to Stafford Warren, who was responsible for radiation safety during the Manhattan Project, to ask if these deaths had any connection to the Trinity test.

As I recall, in August 1945, the month after the first bomb was tested in New Mexico, there were about 35 infant deaths here,” Behnke wrote. “I understand the rate at Alamogordo, nearer the site of the test, was even higher than Roswell.

Scientists already understood that exposure to nuclear radiation could lead to tumors and cancers.  Indeed, accidents at Los Alamos had already occurred on August 21,1945, and May 21, 1946. In both cases, physicists Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin were accidentally exposed to radiating plutonium, suffered acute radiation syndrome and died excruciating deaths.

Five days after the Trinity test, Stafford Warren told Manhattan Project leader General Groves that the nuclear fallout from the test represented “a very serious hazard” over a 2,700-square-mile area downwind of the Trinity site.

Despite this knowledge, Warren's assistant wrote back to Behnke that he hadn’t heard about an increase in infant mortality, but in any case “wanted to assure you that the safety and health of the people at large is not in any way endangered.”

Cancer rates among adults began to climb. One resident from the Tularosa Basin produced a list of 285 friends and family that had died from cancer since the test.  Affidavit after affidavit from New Mexico residents told the same story. Locals remembered fallout blanketing buildings, crops and water.  Survivors lost nieces, nephews, parents, siblings and children.

One particularly horrifying story can be found at,caused%20by%20the%20nuclear%20blast.:

At 5:30 AM on July 16, 1945, thirteen-year-old Barbara Kent was on a camping trip with her dance teacher and 11 other students in Ruidoso, New Mexico, when a forceful blast threw her out of her bunk bed onto the floor.

Later that day, the girls noticed what they believed was snow falling outside. Surprised and excited, Kent recalls, the young dancers ran outside to play. “We all thought ‘Oh my gosh,’ it’s July and it’s snowing … yet it was real warm,” she said. “We put it on our hands and were rubbing it on our face, we were all having such a good time … trying to catch what we thought was snow.”

Years later, Kent learned that the “snow” the young students played in was actually fallout from Trinity. Of the 12 girls that attended the camp, Kent is the only living survivor [diagnosed herself with four different types of cancer]. The other 11 died from various cancers, as did the camp dance teacher and Kent’s mother, who was staying nearby.

People who lived near Trinity began to call themselves “downwinders.”  In 1990, the United States passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to provide money to some sufferers from nuclear tests in Nevada; however, the Act did not provide compensation or apology to residents of the Tularosa Basin.

Twenty miles from Trinity.

As I write, the desert sits silent, slumbering.  The indignant desert birds are also silent, silently waiting, seething.  We know of two cataclysms that wrecked this world;  the Malpais-Valley of Fires and the Trinity Test.  If John Donne were alive today, he might write:

The favored will not hear the desert cry,
Therefore that others live, the blameless die.

To see my other posts, go to

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to