Las Vegas is known as the city of lights and, at one time, that light was the glow of a nuclear detonation in the Nevada desert.

“It turned night into day.” -Allen Palmer, executive director for the National Atomic Testing Museum

Starting in 1951, the US Department of Energy began testing nuclear ordinances just 65 miles from the city of Las Vegas. At night, the glow of the bombs lit up the sky, and mushroom clouds could be spotted rising over the horizon during the day.

Atomic tourism drew people from all over to see these devices of ultimate destruction. Mushroom clouds showed up on billboards, in hairstyles, and even costumes. There was literal pageantry as Las Vegas named the official “Miss Atomic Bomb”.

Miss Atomic Vegas

Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Casinos jumped at the chance to use their roofs for exclusive atomic cocktail parties, and tourism officials posted guides on the best places to watch the bombs. Detonations were even announced in advance to ensure nobody missed them.

“The best thing to happen to Vegas was the atomic bomb.” – Benny Binion, casino owner

A Nuclear Society

Tests continued in the Nevada Desert until 1963, when the US signed a ban on above-ground testing. Despite the ban, over 900 bombs were tested outside the city between 1951 and 1992.

Ironically, all this spectacle and fascination was embedded in the midst of crippling worry over nuclear doomsday. During the same time, children were being told to hide under their desks in preparation for a nuclear attack. Schools even issued dog tags to children so they could be identified in case of an accident at the testing facility.

cold war dog tag

CC James Vaughan via Flickr

While the Vegas economy exploded with the bombs, so did concerns about dangerous radiation exposure. Soldiers viewing nuclear bombs showed significantly higher risks of cancer and a high chance of deformity in offspring, but military officials at the time said that residents of Las Vegas could just shower if they were exposed.

soldiers viewing nuclear test

Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau