In A Nutshell
For 10 years, from around 1952–1963, atomic tourism was a big deal. Nuclear testing was taking place about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Las Vegas, and civilian tourists would get as close to the blast as they could to throw all-night parties in sight of the mushroom cloud. What followed sounds an awful lot like the back story to the game Fallout: New Vegas.
The Whole Bushel
Above-ground nuclear testing began just outside Las Vegas in 1951. From the city itself, the large mushroom clouds were visible, reaching into the sky. To allay any fears the citizens of Vegas may have had, the government ran a successful PR campaign, convincing people that atom bombs were not only safe, but fun. Obviously, we now know that nuclear fallout causes all sort of horrible health problems, but back then they were told that if anyone was exposed to radiation, they could just take a shower and they’d be right as rain.
With the test site employing 10,000 people, it was soon seen as a boon to the Vegas economy. And with the bombs being dropped once every three weeks, Las Vegas became known unofficially as “Atomic City,” a tourist destination with its very own nuclear fireworks show. People came from all over America to see the spectacle and Vegas’s population more than doubled. In order to cash in on this, businesses would advertise hotel rooms based on their views of the explosion and people would even venture out into the desert themselves with “atomic lunchboxes.”
Whenever a bomb was dropped, there would be “Dawn Bomb Parties.” These started at midnight, Vegas crooners performing until 4:00 AM, when the party would stop for the partygoers to silently watch the flash and resulting mushroom cloud bloom on the horizon. Elvis even had one of his first gigs here around 1952. Of course he was a relative unknown, and he didn’t go over too well at the time. There was even a new drink created. It was called an “Atomic Cocktail.” It was just one of many cash-ins, including the atomic hairdo and the atomic beauty pageant.
Even though the government was careful to make sure that the wind was blowing in such a way as to blow away any fallout, people as far away as Utah reported that their animals and livestock were getting sick. But no one in Vegas seemed to notice or care as it looked like the party would go on forever. Then, 235 bombs later, with Vegas’ economy $200 million richer, the 1963 Limited Test Ban put a stop to all above-ground nuke tests. Finally, the weirdest party in the world was over.
Show Me The Proof
PBS: Atomic Tourism in Nevada
io9: Wild Vegas parties celebrated atomic bomb tests of the 1950s
A Gamble in the Sand: How Las Vegas transformed itself from a railroad watering hole to the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’