March 28, 2021

Nuclear Testing Affected Prescott

For those back east, it meant troubling news stories, but for residents of the southwest, the cold war was much more tangible. It was a time when Prescott residents would occasionally be awakened to the ground shaking and an orange glow in the western sky from nuclear testing at Nevada’s Yucca Flat Proving Ground.

Yucca Flat, NV is 266 miles from Prescott.

There were dozens of tests in the early to mid-1950s, but only a handful were large enough to be seen, heard, and even felt in Arizona.

"Annie" 3/17/1953
(Vertical smoke streaks were
from smoke rockets sent up 
just before detonation to
measure the shock-wave.)
One of the first occurred March 17, 1953. The test was named “Annie” and was announced well in advance. In fact, the preliminaries were broadcast over TV. One couple, Mr. & Mrs. Bud Boudreaus, woke up early for the event. 

Since the actual explosion was not televised, the two stepped outside at the time of detonation. First an eery glow appeared in the northwestern sky before a low rumbling explosion was heard over 20 minutes later. According to reports, the 16 kiloton blast could be seen and heard all over Arizona.

The second major test seen in Prescott happened only one week later and was headline news:

“Prescott was rocked by the atomic explosion created this morning on the Yucca Flat proving ground,” the Courier reported. “The pinkish white glow from the blast, reaching from over Granite mountain to Thumb Butte, timed the explosion at 6:13 AM, but the sound wave and rocking motion of the earth did not reach Prescott until 6:33. 

“‘I felt it all right,’ said one Prescottonian. ‘But I thought I was having a dizzy spell and just took an Alka-seltzer,’” the paper wrote.

Witnesses thought both the flash and the quaking sensation were larger than the previous week. Indeed, this test, named “Nancy,” was 50% greater at 24 kilotons.

"Climax" 6/4/1953 67kt

The last of this 1953 series, known as “Operation Upshot-Knothole,” happened June 4. Appropriately this test was named “Climax” and at 67 kilotons was the largest tested that operation. The Courier declined to publish any local descriptions of the blast, but it did report that the blast “was seen in various parts of Arizona,” including police officers in Kingman, Phoenix, and even Tucson.

Yucca Flat would not see testing again until 1955. The first blast noticed in Prescott during "Operation Teapot" was actually the second of that series and occurred February 22. This detonation was not noted for the flash, but “a low rumble [that] was audible…about 7:05 AM,” the paper reported. One pilot, flying at a high altitude over Yavapai County, reported that he saw the detonation.

Unofficially called the “George Shot” (since it was Washington’s birthday,) the test was officially called “Moth” and was only 2 kilotons. Oddly, other tests of this size (and there were several,) made no discernible impression on Yavapai County at all. According to, Moth “tested a new compact pulse neutron tube.”

Two weeks later on March 7, the “biggest bomb explosion” to date occurred at Yucca Flat: 

It “turned dawn into bright daylight here [in Prescott],” the paper noted, “but there was little noise.” The explosion took place 500 feet above ground which was cited as the cause for the lack of sound or earth movement. This test,  called “Turk,” produced the brightest flash from an atomic test at Yucca Flat. The device was named “Linda” and it produced a 43 kiloton blast.

“The flash from the explosion was seen…about 6:20 AM,” the Courier recorded. “It illuminated the sky from southwest to northeast and extended nearly to the zenith.” 

The story of the great run on the world's strongest metal, tungsten in 1915-16 and its affect on Yavapai county. At its height, a ton of 65% ore would bring the equivalent of $130,000 today.

The last nuclear test that was observable in Prescott happened May 5, 1955 and produced the headline at the top of this article. This test was to be witnessed by the Atomic Energy Commission and occurred 50 miles closer.

The 29 kiloton, “Apple-2” test also produced the Courier’s best description for how a nuclear blast in Nevada looked like in Prescott:

“An out-of-this-world glow woke up the pre-dawn northwest skies of Prescott this morning. The picture seen by observers here was awesome with an unearthly blending of color.

“At 5:10am, the whole sky over Granite Mountain and southward appeared to open like a flower—and just as silently. About 18 minutes later, the shock wave from the explosion…rocked the city with a motion much like that of a distant sharp quake.

“The heavenly glow first shot up high with a burst of yellow, then it turned alternately light orange and finally deep red. The last of the dying glow was seen 18 seconds after the first burst.”

After recognizing the dangers of above-ground testing and the resulting radioactive fallout that travelled with the wind, the government started a program of underground testing with the last nuclear test explosion happening in September, 1992.

For those who were adversely affected by the fallout, the government offered the "Downwinders" program. Fortunately for Yavapai County, the worst of the radioactivity stayed north.

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Prescott Evening Courier, 3/17/1953; Pg. 1, Col. 7

Prescott Evening Courier, 3/24/1953; Pg. 1, Col. 8

Prescott Evening Courier, 6/4/1953; Pg. 1, Col. 1

Prescott Evening Courier, 2/22/1955; Pg. 1, Col. 8

Prescott Evening Courier, 3/7/1955; Pg. 1, Col. 8

Prescott Evening Courier, 5/5/1955; Pg. 1, Col. 8

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