LOS ALAMOS (KRQE) - For decades, area residents whispered about what the government was doing deep inside the walls of Los Alamos Canyon.
"They would keep gold in there," said David Roybal, a Los Alamos resident. "That's all I remember people saying."
Other stories were even more outlandish.
"There was a rumor that there was a train in (there) because when you were on top, you could hear strange noises," said Ellen McGhee, a Los Alamos National Laboratory historian.
But no one outside of lab employees knew for sure what was inside the canyon rock.
Last fall, the federal government declassified the 230-foot-long tunnel located at the base of Los Alamos Canyon to cut the costs of maintaining the once-heavily guarded facility. And, last week, a News 13 reporter and photographer were the first members of the general public to be allowed inside the tunnel since it was built in 1948.
"The public has not been in this vault," McGhee said. "There's been no media ever in this vault."
The purposes of the concrete structure, which is large enough for trucks to drive into, included a fallout shelter in case of nuclear war, a research facility for lab scientists working on projects like the hydrogen bomb and a storage area for top-secret parts for nuclear weapons, she said.
The canyon provided a perfect hiding place "because of the cliffs we have here, the volcanic tuft and the setup with the canyon walls," McGhee said.
The entire town of Los Alamos was off-limits back then, and visitors had to have a government-issued pass to enter and exit the town. Plutonium pits and other weapons components were flown in to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, transported to Los Alamos in panel vans and driven straight into the tunnel.
Plutonium pits are a critical core component of nuclear weapons, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration Web site.
At the end of the tunnel is the entrance to the main vault. Inside that vault are five rooms with vaulted doors where the weapons components were stored.
"It's a vault within a vault," McGhee said. "In the earliest years of the Cold War, they didn't have a facility for that, so this vault was built specifically for those pits."
Many of those old weapons parts remained inside the vault until as recently as last fall, she said. Lab experts used them as teaching tools in the post-Cold War era. McGhee said many of those old parts are so secret they are still considered classified information today.
Today, the tunnel runs under a popular Los Alamos landmark.
"We're pretty much underneath the McDonald's parking lot," McGhee said as she led News 13 on a tour of the tunnel.
She said that while she hopes to one day get the tunnel, which is now an empty shell, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are currently no plans to open it to the general public. Still, McGhee believes the tunnel vault remains valuable to future generations.
"This facility is really symbolic of this early Cold War secrecy and security," she said. "That, to me, tells the story."
It's a piece of New Mexico history that very few people have seen before, and News 13 cameras were allowed access to a secret underground tunnel buried deep in the heart of the Los Alamos Canyon.
For years, Los Alamos residents whispered about what was down in the canyon. From a passageway for a secret, underground train to a mine full of precious metals, the stories were endless. Unless you worked at the Los Alamos National Lab, it's remained one of the best kept secrets in New Mexico since the 1940s.
At the base of the canyon is a tunnel carved about 230 feet into the rock.
The tunnel was built in 1948 at the start of the Cold War. In the late forties and fifties, the threat of a nuclear strike was very much a reality. The entire town of Los Alamos was off-limits, and visitors needed a government pass to enter and exit.
"A lot of the 1950s buildings here in Los Alamos were designed with fallout shelters," LANL Historian Ellen McGhee said.
The tunnel was built to serve as a safe haven in case the country broke out in nuclear war. But in the meantime, lab scientists worked inside the tunnel in secrecy, studying and developing new weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb. The underground tunnel was the first place in the country to store the parts for those weapons.
"In the earliest years of the Cold War, they didn't have a facility for that, so this vault was built specifically for those (plutonium) pits," McGhee said.
Los Alamos canyon provided the perfect hiding place because of the cliffs, volcanic tuft and setup of the canyon walls, McGhee said. Plutonium pits and other weapons parts were flown into Albuquerque's Kirtland Air Force Base, then transported to Los Alamos in paneled trucks and driven straight into the tunnel.
The material was stored in five rooms, each secured with bank vault-type doors. The federal government only declassified the tunnel because some of the
old weapons parts remained in the vault as recently as last fall. Lab experts used them as teaching tools in the post-Cold War era.
But McGhee said the weapons parts kept in the tunnel were so secret that they are still considered classified information today.
"No one could come down the canyon, so this was a top secret and heavily guarded facility," McGhee said.
The guards and weapons are now gone, and all the remains is an empty shell. But historians said the tunnel vault is still valuable for future generations.
"This facility is really symbolic of this early Cold War secrecy and security," McGhee said. "That to me tells the story."
The federal government declassified the tunnel to cut the costs of maintaining the once heavily guarded facility. Historians hope to one day get the vault listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Until then, there are no immediate plans to open the tunnel for public tours.
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