Utah's Oak City Almost Became 'Los Alamos" and a Nuclear Site
Oak City is in the center of this section of the Utah Highway Map. By Lynn Arave AN official history of the famous Manhattan Project reveals an obscure but startling Utah connection — Oak City in Millard County was the search director's first choice for the atomic weapons laboratory.
Of course, Los Alamos, N.M., eventually won out as the site, but obviously if Oak City had been chosen it could have significantly altered the Beehive State's history.
Oak City, which has about 800 residents, is 125 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and 14 miles east of Delta.
(Ever been to the Little Sahara sand dunes? You're just 22 miles north of Oak City.)
"That's been well known for years," Kevin Roark, Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman, said of the town's consideration, though he conceded it is an obscure fact.
"I don't think the military was keen on Los Alamos," he said.
A 50th anniversary article on the history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory says that Maj. John Dudley of the Manhattan District Staff was assigned to survey the West and find potential sites for an atomic laboratory in October 1942. The article is posted at on the lab's Web site.
"Dudley searched parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. His first choice for the laboratory site was Oak City, Utah," according to the Los Alamos history.
"It was a delightful little oasis in south central Utah," Dudley wrote. "The railroad was only 16 miles away over a nice, easy road. The airport was not too distant. The water supply was good. It was surrounded by hills, and beyond there was mostly desert. However, I noticed one thing: If we took over this area we would evict several dozen families and we would also take a large amount of farm acreage out of production."
Because of the potential loss of farmland, Dudley recommended his second choice — Jemez Springs, N.M.
In the end, Dudley's choice was overruled by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist and the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. He favored Los Alamos.
Roark said Los Alamos, too, was not uninhabited, having a boys school and some settlers.
Development of the site began in 1943 and has worked out well over the years, he said. Outdoor recreation opportunities in the area make it an attractive place to live.
Kent Powell, a Utah State Historical Society historian, said the Oak City connection to the Manhattan Project was news to him.
"It is a good 'What if?' " to ponder, he said.
Checking with some longtime Oak City residents back in 2009, between the ages of 82 and 95 revealed that only one had ever heard about the town being considered for an atomic lab. Ava Anderson had read about it in a newspaper article several decades ago. She said the matter was so secretive in the 1940s that likely no residents knew about it back then.
"I hadn't heard that before," said resident Phyllis Anderson, 88. "We'd have been a lot different place if that had happened."
She said she relishes the open spaces of Oak City. She lived in the South for a while and couldn't wait to return to where she was born.
If Oak City had been selected, it might have worked out well given pilots and crew of the B-29 that dropped atomic bombs on Japan secretly trained just 120 miles to the northwest in Wendover, Utah.
But the controversy of later atomic testing in Nevada and its harmful downwind effect on southern Utah residents might have started farther north if Oak City had been selected. It's possible that Utah's west desert area or an adjacent part of Nevada might have replaced what is now known as the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico — about 200 miles from Los Alamos — as the place where the first-ever atomic bomb was detonated. Had that been the case, more atomic testing would have probably taken place near Utah. On the other hand, the Los Alamos Laboratory has pumped billions of dollars into that state's economy and has provided thousands of additional jobs.