The Manhattan Project

John Ruminer's Interview

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John Ruminer's Interview

John Ruminer is a Board Member of the Los Alamos Historical Society, a docent at the Los Alamos History Museum, and the author of 109 East Palace Avenue: A Microcosm of Santa Fe’s Four Hundred Year History. He previously worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In this interview, Ruminer explains some of the fascinating history of the Plaza of Santa Fe. He provides detailed descriptions of the property’s history, and the Manhattan Project’s offices at 109 East Palace. Ruminer also describes how the Los Alamos Historical Society and the Historic Santa Fe Foundation are working to preserve history and to date historical buildings and sites.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 12, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it is October 12, 2017. I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I have with me John Ruminer. I’d like him to say his name and spell it.

John Ruminer: You got it just right. It’s John Ruminer – R-U-M-I-N-E-R.

Kelly: Terrific. John, why don’t you talk about where we are in Santa Fe, and a little bit about the history of this place?

Ruminer: Well, Santa Fe has fascinating history going back over four hundred years. It was the first capital, and the longest capital, of any city in the United States. It was founded in 1610 when Governor [Pedro de] Peralta established Santa Fe as the capital of New Mexico. It’s been occupied by the government and by merchants and whatnot ever since.

We are right now in probably the second most important block in Santa Fe. Right next door to us is where the governor’s palace was, and it’s where the Plaza of Santa Fe was established. This property we’re in right now was choice property. It was next to the governor, it was next to the Plaza, it was right adjacent to the church, and it was surrounded by what’s called the Cienega of Santa Fe, which was a marshland with springs and grazing land.

So this property and this 100 block of East Palace Avenue was very desirable. As a consequence over the years, it has been a magnet for some of the most interesting characters and important political figures of Santa Fe. A couple examples: at one point in the mid-1850s, it was owned by a woman named Carmel Benavides and her husband, Antoine Robidoux. He was a French Canadian trapper, explorer, and linguist. He’s the man that guided General [Stephen W.] Kearny and his Army of the West into New Mexico. He was the guide and interpreter. So that’s one character that owned this property.

Governor [LeBaron Bradford] Prince owned the property later in the century. He was the governor. He was a historian. He wrote many books and articles. And he was the president of the New Mexico Historical Society for over forty years. Then, his good friend, Frank Clancy, who was Attorney General, the first Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, which was established in 1912, owned this property. After him, Senator Bronson Cutting, a beloved senator that had several sessions in Washington before he was tragically killed in a plane crash.

Today, it’s owned by the Martha Field Family Trust, who owns this property and the property next door, which is called “Prince Plaza”. She is the person that leased the suite of offices here to the University of California for the Manhattan Project. Martha Field, not the Family Trust.

This is the property that was leased by the University of California during the Manhattan Project, and it served as an office space initially for Robert Oppenheimer and his assistant, Priscilla Greene [Duffield]. They had the two offices at the end of the courtyard. There were also, for a couple of months, other leaders of the business organization that had offices behind me. But after a couple of months, Dorothy McKibbin and her assistants occupied the offices at the end of the courtyard, and they were here for the next twenty years.

So the scientists – all of the scientists – and their families would report to 109 East Palace Avenue. That’s the address of this office here. They would come through a doorway off of East Palace Avenue, they would walk right in front of me here down a pathway, and they would report to Dorothy McKibbin and her office assistants right next door.

Now, many people believe that the University of California and the Manhattan Project had sole use, because of security reasons, of this whole courtyard and the offices around it. That’s actually not true. There was one lawyer, name is Reese Fullerton, that had already leased the offices right in front of me here, and they allowed him to stay here throughout the Manhattan Project. And he would do services for them. But he stayed here for decades afterward. His son, Reese Fullerton, Jr., used to play with Dorothy McKibbin’s son, Kevin, while they were waiting for their mom and father to get off of work, and we hear really interesting stories about that.

Dorothy McKibbinShe was hired around the end of March. By early May, Robert Oppenheimer and all of his staff had moved up to the Hill because their offices were ready up there by then. And so Dorothy moved into Robert Oppenheimer’s office. She says the one thing he left that she prized the most was his chair. So his desk and chair were left, and Dorothy set up the office with her assistant, Mrs. Bennett, and they started greeting the scientists as they would come to the Hill.

The scientists were told, “Report to 109 East Palace.” Many of them didn’t even know where they were going to go after that. They’d get their orders. They would come in through this door to my left and they would disappear. 

Dorothy was such an aid and support for the families of the scientists. Very often, they’d come into town with luggage and sometimes furniture. She would take care of it. And I think some of the offices behind me were used to store equipment like that. Because she was just there to help out in any way she could, and there were no individuals staying in those offices behind me once Oppenheimer moved out.

Kelly: Describe the route that you had to get there [109 East Palace] and just a little bit of that.

Ruminer: Scientists thought they were to report to 109 East Palace and that was where they were going to work. No, that was just the beginning, the next stage in their journey. They then had to travel about thirty-five miles to the west of here over dirt roads, very windy roads, across the Rio Grande, up switchbacks to the mesas and Los Alamos.

There, they would find a guard gate, and they had their badges because Dorothy McKibbin had prepared them for them. And that’s where they would report and move into the barracks, wherever their laboratory was. Their housing, which was anywhere from a quad, to the barracks, to trailers, and in some cases, they would stay at little ranchitos around the valley because there was not enough housing at the beginning.

Kelly: Okay.

Ruminer: Okay, I am sitting in the office of Dorothy McKibbin. There’s some very well-known photographs of Dorothy holding two phones on two ears, and with the fireplace in back of me, in the photograph. So that’s how we positively identified that this was first Robert Oppenheimer’s office and then Dorothy McKibbin’s office for the duration of her career here, which was about twenty years.

Right in front of me is the double French doors, where the scientists would come into Dorothy’s office, get their pass work done, get their marching instructions. Then they would go through the French doors where a taxi would be waiting for them to take them up to the Hill.

Two years ago, the Los Alamos Historical Society teamed up with the Historic Santa Fe Foundation to do some research on the age of the building on this block. We knew the four-hundred-year history of ownership of the property, and we have a continuous line of ownership identified just because we know who owned the property. But that doesn’t tell you who built the buildings or how long the buildings have been here.

We started a project where what we’re doing is called dendrochronology. That’s where you take tree rings from the wooden parts of the structure and you date the dates that the particular log or beam was first cut. So we spent a whole day here in this little office complex at 109 East Palace. The shop of the Rainbow Man was very cooperative and allowed us to spend the day here, taking about thirty-some cores out of what are called the vigas. These are the beams in the roof of each of the rooms. We took samples from about six different rooms.

To our surprise, almost all of the trees dated about 1855. That was a surprise to us because we know there was a building here prior to 1855, because we have a map that was designed by Jeremy Gilmer, one of General Kearny’s officers. General Kearny was in the Army of the West that came through in 1846 to claim this territory as property of the United States of America. So we knew there was a building here already from this map that Gilmer drew up. We think maybe the whole building was re-roofed at that time about ten years later.

One other surprise, though: that we took cores from the lintel at the entrance to the courtyard. The lintel is the beam over the entryway, and that dated 1693. Now, that is about the time that Diego de Vargas, and the re-conquest of Santa Fe, after the Pueblo revolt took place, came back in 1692 and then again in 1693 with families and the people that were going to stay here. So that beam dates to that period. It was actually a sprig in 1460, well before [Christopher] Columbus came. It’s the oldest beam that’s ever been dated from the Spanish Era, or in Santa Fe, even from the oldest church in Santa Fe. That’s 1709. This is special property and we’re excited about the results.

We’re also planning to date the bricks in the fireplace. There’s a technique that’s a very sophisticated scientific technique. So we will be seeing when they were built – the fireplaces were built – probably about the same time, probably in the 1850s.

Kelly: Is it carbon dating?

Ruminer: No, it’s not carbon dating. It’s like little dosimeters. Every little grain of sand in the bricks is like an individual dosimeter. And it emits – because of the inherent radiation in the materials that make up the brick – they deposit radiation in these little grains of sand. And then, when the brick is heated, it releases all that radiation and the clock starts over again. So they can date when the bricks were fired.

The Los Alamos Historical Society is working with [Northern New Mexico] Highlands University. A professor there that has recently set up a laboratory to do this kind of dating. Very interesting, we’re looking forward – we haven’t got the results yet but we’re waiting for it.