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Zia Company 1946-1986

By Linda Aldrich

In 1942, when the WWII Manhattan Project took over the Los Alamos Ranch School and adjoining ranches and homesteads on the Pajarito Plateau, the Corps of Engineers was responsible for setting up and operating the town of Los Alamos and the Project facilities.  The University of California was the contractor for the scientific work to be done on the atomic bomb.  Although there were two Engineer units, a WAC unit and an MP unit in Los Alamos in 1943, most of the actual construction of hundreds of housing units and laboratory facilities was contracted out.  The first general contractor for the ongoing construction was the M. M. Sundt Construction Company of Las Vegas [N.M.].  After Sundt’s contract was completed in late 1943, the Robert E. McKee Company of Texas took over construction for 1944 and 1945.

At the war’s end, with uncertainty about the future extent of government involvement in atomic energy, the question arose as to whether or not Los Alamos would continue to exist.  This was decided in the affirmative by Congress in 1946.  However, neither the Army nor the University of California wanted the responsibility of running the town or the Laboratory facilities.  In the fall of 1945, Colonel Alexander Stevens, Post Commander at Los Alamos, talked with Jack Brennand, general manager of the Santa Fe Area Office of McKee, about the possibility of McKee taking over the facilities operation of town and Laboratory.  (The University of California agreed to continue as contractor for the scientific aspects of the Laboratory.)  McKee evidently had misgivings about taking on such a project, one perhaps being that the contract would be on the basis of a fixed fee, less than 1 ½ % of the total dollar volume generated by the work performed by the new company in Los Alamos.  Most expenses, as well as taxes, would have to come out of this fee.  However, McKee did agree to the proposal, provided a separate, independent company could be set up to do the work.  The name of the company was suggested by Mr. Brennand, who recalled that the Albuquerque District of the Corps of Engineers, which was initially involved in the Project, had called Los Alamos “The Zia Project,” a name derived from the Zia sun sign used on the state flag.  Any reference to Los Alamos in the company’s name was considered inadvisable because of security reasons still uppermost in the minds of all associated with the wartime project.

In March 1946, The Zia Company was incorporated for the purpose of maintaining and operating the community of Los Alamos and the Laboratory facilities.  It was incorporated for $100,000 with a work force the first month of 1500, a number that would fluctuate with the demands of the growing Laboratory and community.  In the four years from 1946 to 1950, the population of the town went from less than 4000 to 9500, an increase that put constant pressure on The Zia Company to produce facilities and services for the town and Laboratory.  In the 1950s, Zia workers numbered as high as 3000.

The company’s presence permanently and radically changed the nature of life in northern New Mexico, as former sheepherders, cowboys, miners, lumberjacks, and railroad employees found stable, relatively well-paying work in Los Alamos, thus ending their often migratory search for work.  Life in northern New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s was difficult because of the  worn-out land and the subsistence economy.  With the advent of Los Alamos and The Zia Company, many were enabled to return home to live and raise their children with renewed hope for the future.

For forty years, from 1946 to 1986, The Zia Company operated and maintained the Laboratory technical areas, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the company’s history is that for nearly twenty of those forty years it also operated the town of Los Alamos, which was the ultimate “company town.”  There was almost nothing that Zia didn’t do for the residents.  The town and Laboratory that Zia took over had hastily been thrown together as the pressure of the war kept activity to a fever pitch.  Photos of wartime Los Alamos show a dismal town of muddy streets, quonset huts, trailers and flimsy utilitarian buildings.  Zia’s first job was to convert this temporary town into a permanent city.  One example of the difficulties intially encountered was the lack of utility charts.  Often whatever plans did exist had not been followed for one reason or another during the war.  If a problem arose with utility mains, they often had to be located using electrical pipefinders or other such “mechanical divining rods.”

At one time or another during the twenty years, Zia provided all utilities as well as the servicing of them.  It ran the fire department, school system, youth center, medical center, provided maid and janitorial services and did all the street maintenance and repair.  Zia operated the bus system, the taxi service and did all vehicle and equipment repair and maintenance.  Its responsibilities included a cold storage and ice plant, provision of wood, ice and fuel oil, refuse collection, and the collection of rent from all housing and businesses.  Zia ran cafeterias, a hotel, administered all business concessions in town, operated the radio station and library and published the local newspaper.  In short, if you needed or wanted anything, you called Zia.

The services provided varied over the years, changing with the town’s needs.  Until 1959 there were dormitories occupied by the town’s single residents.  Houses were rented to families, the size of the house partially determined by the size of the family.  For a while Zia maid service made all the beds in dormitories.  There was even a time when Zia provided a babysitting service!  One of the company’s duties was to see that all the town’s lawns were watered and cared for.  In 1948 the monthly charge for lawn upkeep for residents was $1.75 per 1000 square feet.  If a resident wished to care for his own lawn he had to apply for permission to do so to the Parks Section of Zia.  Seed and fertilizer was sometimes given free to tenants who wished to improve their yards.  Regular contests were held during the summer for the most beautiful and well-kept yards.  All this was part of the effort to create a modern town after the dismal, muddy war years.  Zia painted and re-roofed houses on a regular basis, paved driveways and distributed firewood on call.

Zia was landlord not only to the town’s residents but also to the commercial establishments given concessions to operate in the government-owned town.  Which businesses were allowed to operate in Los Alamos was determined by the government.  After the military commissary closed there were two supermarkets given concessions to operate in Los Alamos.  Zia regularly checked the prices to make certain that they stayed in conformity with the current market.

For a few months The Zia Company provided a check-cashing service for the residents.  During this time an armored car made daily trips to Santa Fe to exchange the checks for cash.  This ended in late 1947 when the First National Bank of Santa Fe was given a concession in the town.  Another service provided by Zia was operation of the airport with its 5000-foot runway.  The strip was closed to private planes until 1961 and the official concessionaire, Cargo Air Service, operated regular flights between the town and Albuquerque.  In 1961-62 the flight log listed over 19,000 passengers and over 7000 flights.  The Zia-operated bus service was initially free to all employees and picked up people from as far away as Santa Fe to bring them to work in Los Alamos. Later a ten-cent fare was instituted, certainly not enough to cover the operating costs.  The revenue for one month in 1947 was $447.40 and the cost of operation was $2671.49!

   From 1946 to 1949 Zia ran five cafeterias, which opened or closed depending on the community’s needs.  The Lodge (today called Fuller Lodge, its original name) was the town’s only hotel.  It was operated by Zia and after 1957 when the town was no longer closed to outsiders, was listed as “approved by Duncan Hines.”  This handsome log building, designed by John Gaw Meem for the Ranch School in 1928, had three stone wings added in 1948 to provide additional rooms.  The Lodge manager and his family lived in the building.  Visitors to the town could be accomodated only as rooms not needed by official Laboratory visitors became available.  The Lodge continued its wartime role as the town’s favorite eating and gathering spot.  Such events as Hawaiian luaus and Roaring Twenties parties were a feature, as was a catering service and Saturday night dancing to a local band.

There was a superintendent of schools who oversaw the school teachers, but The Zia Company was responsible for the school payroll and the general operation and construction of all the schools.  Zia bought all school supplies, processed, paid, and housed all school employees, and provied janitorial and bus service to the schools.  In the three years during which Zia operated the schools, the enrollment went from 343 to over 1500.

Company operations were complicated by the elaborate system used in allocating housing to those who worked in Los Alamos.  Because there were not enough houses for everyone, a point system based on such things as seniority and job criticality was devised by the government for assigning housing.  Only Zia’s top supervisory personnel and a few key foremen were given houses in town.  To help relieve the housing crunch in the 1950s Zia operated a camp for construction workers at White Rock.  It included houses, trailers, dormitories, stores, a cafeteria, post office, school and fire department.  When construction in Los Alamos slacked off, the camp was abandoned and torn down.  In the early 1960s the present-day town of White Rock was built by private developers on the site of the former construction camp.

Eventually, following the precedents set at two other government towns, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, Congress determined that the federal government should dispose of the town site operations.  This meant that Zia services would henceforth cover only the Laboratory technical areas and the community itself would be operated by the separate city/county government, in existence since 1949.  In the early 1960s, as disposal was planned, Zia was deluged with calls from residents anxious to take advantage of the company’s free services to put their houses in excellent condition before sale by the government.   Residents were given first option to buy when their houses were sold.  Disposal of the various aspects of town operation occurred over the course of several years in the early to mid-1960s.  Zia became a more conventional government contractor and Los Alamos a more conventionally-run town, though less carefree for its residents.

Over the years, The Zia Company performed contract services at other sites away from Los Alamos, including the White Sands Test Facility, the Nevada Test Site, Sandia Corporation, Dow Chemical Company, Grumman Corporation, and etcetera.  In 1973 it became a subsidiary of Santa Fe Industries.  In 1986, The Zia Company lost its bid for renewal of the contract with the Department of Energy for operation of the National Laboratory facilities – and so ended its forty-year history of service to New Mexico and the nation.  Its impact on the state has been extensive, not only in jobs provided.  Those with sharp eyes and some acquaintance with Los Alamos may be able to spot many Los Alamos buildings, either built by Zia or declared surplus and replaced by Zia, which were moved to various places around New Mexico and surrounding states.

Article compiled from the following sources:

The Zia Company in Los Alamos: A History.  Robert E. McKee.  Carl Hertzog, El Paso, 1950.

"The Zia News.”  Published weekly by The Zia Company, 1949-1986.

Files of the Los Alamos Historical Museum Archives.

Photographs courtesy of the Los Alamos Historical Museum Photo Archives.

Thanks to William Dunning, Pan American World Services, and to Bruce Kaiper, Espanola, for their assistance with this article.

Linda Aldrich is the Archivist at the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum [1987].