The Manhattan Project

Elberta Lowdermilk Honstein's Interview

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Elberta Lowdermilk Honstein's Interview

Elberta Lowdermilk Honstein was the daughter of Elbert Lowdermilk, the contractor whose construction company built roads and utility lines around Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Lowdermilk Honstein describes her father’s projects, from building the first road to Los Alamos to successfully maneuvering an “atom smasher” up the hill. She discusses her life in Española and her memories of exploring Los Alamos and the Pueblos. She also describes her relationship with her father.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
2009
Location of the Interview: 
El Convento
Transcript: 

Willie Atencio: What were the circumstances that you came to the Española area?

Elberta Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, the very first thing was my father, Elbert Lowdermilk, got the contract to build the first road to Los Alamos in 1943. That’s how I came. In ’43 I would maybe have been 15 years old. We spent the summers with my father. I was still in school in Denver. That’s how I got to New Mexico.

I spent the summers here with my father, riding all over the mesas and walking on top of the ground. I was here when he built the original road up the hill, which has never been changed yet.

Atencio: Where did you reside when you first came to this area?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Where did I come to?

Atencio: Where did you reside? Where was your residence?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Española, yeah. The Granada Hotel. My Dad stayed at the Granada Hotel, and he would always get me a little room. Too bad they tore that down. Anyway, it was a landmark, and I stayed there.

Then in the summertime, we rented a little house, and it was always from Louie Laws. I don’t know if you remember him or not. We rented that, and it had a wood cooking stove and it did have running water and a bathroom. That’s how we spent the summers here in Española. As time went on, things improved, but that’s how it all began.

Atencio: Who did your father deal with when doing the contracting to build the road? Did he deal with General [Leslie] Groves?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, I can’t really tell you that. I think it was the Atomic Energy Commission, whoever was that, and–

Atencio: The Manhattan Project.

Lowdermilk Honstein: –let out the contracts. Because, I remember when my father walked that job, that made the road up the mountain, they thought it was rock. Well, when they got into it, it was ash, tuff or whatever.

Atencio: Tufa.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Tufa, yeah. That was a very interesting development in that road, because they did most of that road without any dynamite. They thought they were going to have to use dynamite.

There was one thing that did happen, though. My father’s shovel – those were the kind that the little kids play with now, with the little bucket. The side of the road caved in, and it fell down that deep –that’s a very deep canyon, but nobody knows that. Right before you get to the big water tanks. But they did get it out. They got it out.

It was a very interesting road to build. As we spoke earlier, that was a much bigger curve than it is now today. They’ve redone that highway up to the point where the cliffs begin, and you go up the mountain. That part has not changed. That is the original road my father built.

Atencio: Did you go with your father many times when the road was under construction?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, yes, and sometimes–

Atencio: What were your impressions of all the commotion?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Right. He had his, they used to call them yards, and one was right at the Y that now goes to–

Atencio: White Rock?

Lowdermilk Honstein: White Rock. I would often not ride with him, but go hiking all over those mesas. I hiked in that old Indian Pueblo that’s starts with a T.

Atencio: Tsankawi.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Been all over through that, but that’s when I was very young. I’ve hiked a lot of those mesas. It was so fabulous, and of course, I fell deeply in love with New Mexico.

Then when Roy [Honstein] and I were married in 1947, my father said, “If you would like a good job, come down and I’ll put you to work.” So we did, and we came down and lived in Totavi, which was a little settlement when you start up the – well, they used to call it “The Hill.”

Roy put up a little service station, little gas, one gas pump that he had to hand pump. My Dad had like eighty gravel trucks, and he filled those gravel trucks all by—he was in really great shape, looked like Tarzan.

Anyway, that’s how we started out. Then I decided that those darling little truckers needed something to eat, so we got a hot plate and got some pans, and I made hot dogs and green chile and served candy bars in this little tiny silver house that my Dad brought down from the hill. That’s how we got started.

As time went on, we got a lease from the Indians, because we were on San Ildefonso land, and opened up – at that time, it was a Standard Oil station. It’s gone now, too. But that’s how we started out.

Atencio: Going back to the early days of the Manhattan Project, what was the biggest impact that your father had on the project, besides building the road? You said something about transporting something.

Lowdermilk Honstein: I would say the biggest impact is bringing up the atom smasher to Los Alamos. That was the most exciting thing that happened to that community for a long time. Not everybody knew about it, because it was secret, but when my Dad took his two Kenworth trucks to Lamy. It was so heavy that they had to put half of it on the axle of one truck and the other half on the axle of the other truck. One Kenworth had to back up all the way up the hill.

They could not go over Otowi Bridge, because it wasn’t strong enough to carry the load. So, they had to go even farther to Española, and come across the Española Bridge, and go up that way. It was a very exciting thing to see. Still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

There was a small group of scientists and dignitaries, all located right there where the water tanks are still today. We watched that come up and go past us. It was very, very exciting.

Atencio: How long did this mode of transport take? Did it take weeks? Or did it take days?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Let’s see. I probably imagine – I think they did it in about twelve hours, but I can’t remember for sure. All I remember was the excitement when they got to the point of that curve and came around the curve and then went around that huge loop there, and came in that way.

We watched it all the way, and it passed us right there at the—it was pretty exciting. Everybody was thrilled. That was the atom smasher. After they got that, it was “Katy, bar the door,” because that was the beginning.

Atencio: Besides building the road to Los Alamos, how much of the road work in Los Alamos did your father do?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh. Well, he put in–

Atencio: You were there riding the truck.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Yeah. I surely was, and I loved that. He put in all the utilities and made all the highways. There’s one great big thing people don’t even remember now. That great big fill that goes over to the Barranca Mesa.

Atencio: Pueblo Canyon.

Lowdermilk Honstein: It’s not a bridge, it’s a fill. That was one of the biggest things, again, in Los Alamos. Because, that’s all dirt, and then of course, they put in all the highways. It was a very exciting time.

Atencio: Did your father have any trouble getting fuel for his equipment? Was there any kind of priority?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Not that I remember, not at that time.

Atencio: Did he have a priority to get fuel?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, he had to have – what do you call it – permits that allowed us to have that fuel. Our little tiny station at the bottom of the hill, we were able to get fuel for all of those trucks. Because he ran eighty gravel trucks a day and they made, from the gravel pits up the—they had to carry everything up the hill. There wasn’t anything up there. They had to take every single thing up the mountain, all the building material, all the gravel, everything.

Atencio: Do you remember some of the people that used to work for your father?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, there’s a lot of guys that were truck drivers here in Española that I have run into through my living here. It’s been wonderful. Give them a big hug. But some of them are gone now. Let’s see, Serna.

Atencio: Billy Serna?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Um-hmm. He was a truck driver. Oh, I can’t remember everybody. I wish I could. But–

Unidentified Female: Stan Coffee.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Who?

Unidentified Female: Stan Coffee.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, he wasn’t a truck driver. He was the concrete man, but Stanley Coffee lived here for many years. He’s, of course, gone now. But there were so many people that contributed to the building of Los Alamos. It’s really a wonderful story.

Atencio: From your experience, most of the people that did the hard work, the construction work, came from Española.

Lowdermilk Honstein: I think so, I think so. All around, that was the only place. Los Alamos was just beginning, and as you know, Los Alamos was the perfect city, because there was no old parts, no slums, no nothing. It was all new. So, all of the laboring and the experts and help came from Española and the surrounding area.

Atencio: Now, your father had a yard in Fairview, also. I remember that.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Where Richard Cook–

Atencio: Can you tell us about how that came to be, the yard there in Fairview?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, they had to have a base point, to have a big enough place to repair the big machines that they used on the roads. There was no place that they could do that on the way to Los Alamos.

When they built the road to Los Alamos, right there at the Y was their first yard. It was just a place where they had their office trailer, and they didn’t have any repair work there. They had to take it clear to Española. Española was where they did all of the work on their big machines and repaired and got ready for the next projects.

As time went on, my Dad had a yard right below—and, I’m trying to think of what – there’s office buildings there now. Just before you get up onto the flat of the hill.

Atencio: Not near the gate?

Lowdermilk Honstein: It was before the gate. You get to the gate and then if you go down the hill, it’s this group of buildings. They used to have a big yard there, but it still wasn’t for repairs. It was for business and storage and for materials, and so forth and so on.

Atencio: Did your father find it very interesting dealing with the military?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, he loved it. He loved everything about Los Alamos. He loved the intelligent level that he dealt with. Those men were wonderful. He had some wonderful friends, and he worked a lot with the [Robert E.] McKee people, who also did all the basic stuff.

I mean, it took a lot of people, because this had to be done in a hurry. They had to have those sites built, they had to have roads built, they had to have utilities. They had to have it in a hurry. They were in a rush.

Atencio: Now, do you remember what happened after the test at Trinity? You don’t remember, you weren’t living at Los Alamos.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, I didn’t ever live in Los Alamos.

Atencio: Okay. Do you remember any of the talk from the people about the Trinity test?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Very little. They honored their commitment. If my father knew – he never, we never discussed that. Those people honored the secrecy part, because it was a totally secret thing.

Atencio: When the war ended – or when they dropped the bombs on Japan – what do you remember about that time?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, it was a very emotional thing for us. Because we were so close to – we didn’t really build the bomb – but we helped in its beginning. It was just an amazing thing. I think that Los Alamos and the people that were in charge – you know, it was so overwhelming, what happened.

I don’t know if they expected what they expected, but of course, it ended the war. All that intelligence, all that marvelous ingenuity was sparked then in another way. They’ve done some magnificent things at Los Alamos, a lot of things that people today don’t even know about.

David Schiferl: I have a question. Your Dad must have made DP Road. What does DP stand for?

Lowdermilk Honstein: You know what, I do not know. If he can remember, he might refresh my mind. I remember DP was really off limits. We got to see it, and I did get to go into DP once with my Dad. But he didn’t have anything to do with the technology. He just did the basics, the stuff.

Schiferl: That’s why I asked if maybe you remembered what–

Lowdermilk Honstein: I can’t remember.

Schiferl: Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Nobody seems to know.

Lowdermilk Honstein: I don’t remember what DP stood for, but all I know is it was top, top, top, top secret. All we got to see was view it from afar, except that once that I got to go in.

Schiferl: Some people say that the P part was plutonium, but we don’t know what the D part was.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, you know what, I wish I [inaudible] could remember. But, you know, we just always called it “DP.” Then, eventually, they moved DP out of Los Alamos.

Atencio: It’s over across–

Lowdermilk Honstein: Yeah, it was toward Bandelier.

Atencio: Well, I think that was very interesting, very significant. We might come back and ask you more questions.

Lowdermilk Honstein: I wish I had more names and so forth, but it’s been a little while.

One person’s talk might spark something else for me, but as I say, we weren’t in on the technical part. We were just in on getting them up there, which was pretty important.

Schiferl: What’s the funniest thing that ever happened while you were here? Maybe the funniest one or two things. Even if it’s something that you’ve already mentioned, just say it again.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Funniest thing?

Schiferl: Funniest thing.

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, I’ll have to tell you something about my father. He was a very serious person, and he liked to do the very, very best he could. I can’t remember anything that struck me as being funny, because he did the very, very best. That road should be proof; that road is still just wonderful. He did everything right up to snuff. Everything was very serious and important to him. I really can’t remember anything funny.

Schiferl: There were lots of strange things. Just bringing that accelerator, the atom smasher, up the hill would be a strange thing. Can you think of other strange things that just sort of flash into your memory? They don’t have to be completely relevant to the project itself, but just things at the time.

Lowdermilk Honstein: My father, as I said, took his job very seriously. But as a young person going with him in the truck, I became absolutely infatuated with New Mexico and the mesa country. I walked all by myself, which was a no-no. But you know how that goes. Never had on boots. Did it in tennis shoes. Never saw a snake.

All those years that I climbed all around, I was very fortunate that I didn’t get clunked. That was probably, for me, a really wonderful time of my life. There was always that one little Indian thing that’s in–

Atencio: Tsankawi, Tsankawi.

Lowdermilk Honstein: –the round spot. But I never got there. It was in a Technical Area, but I never got over there. The Indian part absolutely fascinated me. They were running around, a lot of them up there. It was very interesting.

Atencio: Your father must have managed very well to deal with people from different cultures. He had the military culture, he had the scientific culture, he had the Spanish culture, and he had the Indian culture. How did your father handle all the different cultures and get the most out of everybody?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, it was his personality. I don’t know if you remember Abel Sánchez – he was governor of San Ildefonso.

Atencio: I’ve heard the name.

Lowdermilk Honstein: He worked for my Dad. My Dad always called him Chief, even though, and he loved it. He was a wonderful, great man. And, of course, there’s another culture. He was governor of San Ildefonso, went to Washington with the cane that Abraham Lincoln—oh, it’s all so much, all so wonderful, all that wonderful history.

But, he loved them and he loved the Spanish people. He got along just great with all those scientists. He was a very interesting person, did very well.

Atencio: He also had to put up with the generals and the high-ranking military people. Were they very demanding and difficult to work with?

Lowdermilk Honstein: I don’t know if he had to answer to too many generals. Whoever was in charge of the letting of the roadwork, the job that he was supposed to do. I don’t know if the generals were in there, even though he knew Dr. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. I didn’t get to ever meet him, but he did.

My Dad could get along with everybody. He was a wonderful person, and did a really good job. Because that great huge fill that’s up there that crosses that big valley, it’s still just fine. That’s a long time ago. He did a great job.

Schiferl: Well, that was one of the places that nobody was particularly worried after the Cerro Grande Fire and all the floods, all the debris floods and stuff. They did have to make sure that those culverts kept open–

Lowdermilk Honstein: Right. Yeah, yeah.

Schiferl: There was proof.

Lowdermilk Honstein: I know. He just loved his work. He loved to do the very best he could, and he did a good job.

Schiferl: Was there anything that he ever mentioned that was scary or a special concern? Or was there anything that you ever found scary or a special concern?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, if there was, I don’t think it ever occurred to him how powerful the atom bomb was. I don’t think anybody knew. When they had the Trinity, they knew the power that was going to happen. It was very mind-boggling to everybody. My Dad, his favorite things were rock, iron, and good work. 

Atencio: Good work, good roads. [Inaudible]

Lowdermilk Honstein: Yeah, that was his – he loved those materials to build with, and–

Schiferl: How old was he when he came up here?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Pardon?

Schiferl: How old was he when he started the work at Los Alamos?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Oh, let’s see. I’ll have to figure that out. He’s exactly thirty years older than I am. So–

Unidentified Female: Could be way over a hundred. 

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, yeah, now. But, then, if I was fifteen, he was forty-three or forty-five.

Atencio: Forty-five.

Lowdermilk Honstein: He was forty-five.

Atencio: And once he came–

Lowdermilk Honstein: And in his prime. Pardon?

Atencio: Once he came to this area, he stayed in this area.

Lowdermilk Honstein: He stayed here for, I don’t know, thirty years.

Schiferl: What was his background? What other projects did he work on before he came here?

Lowdermilk Honstein: Well, my father built with Lowdermilk Brothers. He had his brothers, Zimmie Lowdermilk and Hoyle Lowdermilk, that formed the partnership. My Dad lived here. He did most of the stuff here in New Mexico.

Hoyle and Zimmie went back and forth from Denver to here. They were probably one of the famous contracting firms in Colorado. They built so many of the mountain passes, and they built almost off of I-70 through Colorado. I mean, they were very qualified to do what he did here. He got the Pioneer Award from Colorado.

Atencio: That was your father or the brothers?

Lowdermilk Honstein: My father. Well, he was a genius, what can I say. He just simply was. Looking back on everything, how he could look at a situation and say, “This is how we do this.” I mean, he just was tuned in to road building, dirt, rock. He did wonderful bridges, wonderful things. 

Atencio: Well, thank you very much.

Lowdermilk Honstein: You’re welcome.