Hawthorne, Nevada: A Small Town with Explosive Potential… Big Time

Bazooka at the Hawthorne Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum is chockfull of military hardware, which I confess to knowing very little about. I can only wander around and stare. I confess, however, that I thought these instructions were something I could follow in an emergency, like when a tank was crawling up our driveway. You want the smaller end in front. Cover your ears.

Small towns come in a variety of flavors– each one unique. And it is my experience that the small towns of Nevada are more unique than most. Maybe it comes from their boom and bust history as old mining towns. Derelict mines and falling down shacks dot the landscape. Certainly their existence on the remote edge of nowhere has an impact, as does their extreme desert climate. Whorehouses perched on the outskirts of many towns provide a unique, Old West twist. Prostitution is still legal. The state is a do your own thing kind of place.

And finally, there is the omnipresent military. Nevada is America’s go to place for testing the latest, most secret military hardware, for training troops, and for practice at blowing things up. Thousands of square miles are devoted to these pursuits. As a child growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I remember getting up at 5 AM to watch the eastern sky lit up by an atomic blast 50 or so miles north of Las Vegas. It was apocalypse now but we were taught that our ability to destroy the world assured a safe future. No wonder the youth of the 60s and 70s turned to drugs.

Hawthorne, Nevada has a slightly different connection to the military. It’s where old military ordnance goes to die. Some thirty-three hundred cement bunkers spread out from the town across the desert over 147,000 acres. 400 miles of underground railroads connect the various bunkers. If all the munitions decided to blow at once, it would make a very big BOOM.

That’s what happened in 1926 when the Navy’s principal ammunitions depot located in Lake Denmark, New Jersey blew up, wiping out the town and killing 50 people. It was decided that a more remote location was needed for storing munitions. Hawthorne fit the description. The site was officially adopted in 1930. By the 1940s Hawthorne had become known as the “World’s Largest Ammunition Depot,” providing munitions for most of the Allies’ Pacific operations during World War II. In addition to being remote, the site had the advantage of being out of reach to Japanese bombers.

Ammunition bunkers at Hawthorne, Nevada.

This gives an idea of what the bunkers look like and the remote nature of Hawthorne. Note the bunkers behind the buildings looking like burial mounds and stretching off into the distance.

During World War II, most of the munitions used by Allied Forces in the Pacific were stored at Hawthorne. This is an original paper displayed in the museum.

During World War II, most of the munitions used by Allied Forces in the Pacific were stored at Hawthorne. This is an original paper displayed in the museum.

Today the depot boasts the latest technology for disposing of “unserviceable munitions,” which is carried out by a private firm, the Day Zimmerman Hawthorn Corporation. Have you noticed how more and more of America’s military chores are being carried out by private firms? As an aside, way back in the early 1900s, Day Zimmerman invented the machines that put foil on Hershey Chocolate Kisses.

The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum is a must see place if you ever find yourself zipping between Reno and Las Vegas on Highway 95. For one, the museum’s claim to fame is being“the Single Largest Museum Collection of Inert Ordnance, Missiles, Bombs, Rockets and Nuclear Weapons in the World.” For two, it has a great group of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers– more than prepared to talk your ears off. For three, the collection is somewhat eclectic. Like what was the old cash register doing there?

Hawthorne Ordinance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

A front view of the museum. Ordnance, such as this bunker buster in the foreground, is found outside as well as inside.

An antique cash register at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

This should take you back in time.

Harold Warner was on duty when Peggy and I showed up an hour or so before closing time. We had visited the museum before but Harold was quick to point out that there were some new kids on the block: nuclear missiles that he had gussied up with a paint job. He was quite proud and they looked, um, quite deadly. You did get the inert part, right.

Inert nuclear missile at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Harold was quite proud of the paint job on this inert nuclear missile.

A couple of guys from California (looking very militia-like) were wandering around ogling the military hardware. They approached Harold about purchasing automatic weapons. He was quick to tell them that the museum’s collection wasn’t for sell but softened the blow somewhat by suggesting they could probably pick up whatever they wanted by visiting local garage sales.

Harold told us that many of the troops going to Afghanistan did their training in Hawthorne. Considering the stark desert, it made sense. What fascinated me more, however, was that he also said that the locals from the town served as the insurgents for training purposes, sort of the B Team. No thanks, I thought to myself, picturing a platoon of marines chasing me across a nighttime desert as I dodged between bunkers filled with deteriorating bombs.

I like a good adventure, but there are limits.

Visit the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum website or check out it’s Facebook page for more information. Here are a few more photos.

Custer bomb at Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Any idea what this is? It’s a cluster bomb– lots of little bombs inside a big bomb. The probably contain enough shrapnel to take out a national forest.

Machine gun at the Hawthorne Ordinance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Going nose to nose with a machine gun. Note to children: Don’t try this at home.

Bullets and a machine gun at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Checking out the machine gun from the other end.

Ammunition at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in Hawthorne Nevada.

A final photo from the museum.

NEXT BLOG: Drum Roll Please… Peggy and I disappear into the heart of the Nevada desert and Area 51 searching for ET.


44 thoughts on “Hawthorne, Nevada: A Small Town with Explosive Potential… Big Time

  1. It does put some things in perspective………I have to admit, though, that the volunteer was quite interesting with his stories! Peggy

  2. Is hiding something so dangerous in Nevada like that called “hiding in plain sight”? How tall are the things (because I don’t know what to call them) in the last picture? You saw the Nevada testing at the time in the 50s? Glad you weren’t any closer. Just call me The Third Degree. And where does that phrase come from anyway?

    • There is quite a lot of security around what the military wants to hide but there is a degree of secrecy obtained just by being so darn isolated. The ammunition shells are maybe 18 inches to 3 feet tall. And yes I saw the glow from the explosion. I don’t think your interrogation has quite reached the third degree level. You’d have to beat me or refuse to give me my morning cup of coffee. LOL –Curt

  3. Interesting post Curt. Definitely not the sort of thing that many of your readers will ever be able to see. When it comes to the military, most people probably fall in one of two camps; supporters or detractors. And while this museum isn’t quite my cup of tea, it’s a good reminder of what the tools of war really are. I’m sure that the militia types that visit would like more “hands on” exhibits where they could blow stuff up. And I love that the cluster bombs are chicken-wired in – to prevent local Rambo-wannabes from taking one home. ~James

    • Good observation on the cluster bombs, James. The first time I visited the museum they were scattered out from the bomb. Suspect several of them may have walked away. I share your perspective on war but the museum is fascinating. As usual, I tried to keep my blog light, while making a point or two. –Curt

  4. You know what’s truly the spookiest thing about this post? When the email notification arrived, I couldn’t figure out what seemed “wrong”. Suddenly, it came to me. That right-hand column, where gmail always sticks their targeted advertising? It was completely blank. Not a single ad. Just pure white space. I’ve never seen that before. Hmmmmmm….

    This really is fascinating, and it begs the question: where in the world are they storing the current stuff? Given the news about the DoD Directive allowing use of military force against civilians and the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition for such departments as Forestry and Education — well, let’s just say I’m tending to scan the horizon a little more often than usual.

    Love the detail about the Hershey’s kisses — and that last photo looks rather like a bunch of sharpened Crayolas. War as child’s play?

    • It’s a scary world out there, Linda. As you know. And I don’t think it is getting any less scary. The two guys looking for automatic weapons were real. And I suspect that Harold’s comment about being able to pick them up at local garage sales was also real.

      As to where they store the current stuff? I suspect that isn’t a question the likes of you and I will ever have answered. Unless something goes boom

      War as child’s play? There has always been a huge gap between fact and fiction. And those shells were colorful. I wonder if it is for identification purposes? –Curt

      • The “third Degree” is the third and final training of a Freemason. So… Why do they have train tracks running out to those silos, what the hell they storing out there???

  5. Not sure about hitting the Like button. Fascinating stuff to look at, but it is depressing to the think how much human ingenuity, time, resources and cash has gone into trying kill other humans. And yes, I know that war tends also to be a spur to medical and manufacturing progress.

    • Many interesting and thoughtful reactions, Hilary. As for war spurring medical and manufacturing progress, what a sad, sad commentary on our society. What a much better world it would be if all of the money we spend on destroying each other could be channelled into positive causes. –Curt

  6. Now this would be right up my Dad’s alley..He was an artillery man in the National Guard and I have many a photo of him playing with the “big” guns. It is such an oxymoron for he was such a peaceful soul..
    Little story, when I was in the Army I had to fire an M2 Grenade launcher, as soon as I hit the trigger I fainted..Yes, keep me off the war front!
    Interesting post and I wait for the post on ET 😉

  7. With your masterful writing, you made a topic I wouldn’t care so much for interesting. If I ever find myself in that neck of the woods, I just might visit since everything is inert.

    Talking about transitions, from putting foil on Hershey Chocolate Kisses to disposing of “unserviceable munitions,” hmmm.

    I have a story playing in my head, about how one wicked ‘ole scientist steals the secret formula for turning inert missiles active (a formula that was developed in case of a threat), and wants to sell it to the . . . (fill in the blanks). If I can write it quickly enough, it may just be a summer 2015 blockbuster 🙂 Or has a movie with a similar theme been made already?

    Hello Hawthorne Ordance Museum . . .

    • LOL… I think you would have an original. A very wicked scientist indeed! Peggy and I don’t fit into the category of folks who are overly fond of things that make big bangs (beyond fireworks) but we are always on the lookout for interesting things to photograph and write about. 🙂 –Curt

  8. I gotta visit this place! Do you think they’ll let me enjoy one of my stogies there?

    A good friend of mine served with the I.Y.A.A.Y.A.S. of the USAAF. They were the blow things up guys. He loved it. He also has a stash of “inert” ordnance! Some are too big to fit in your backpack. 🙂

    I believe the first machine gun was a .30 caliber and the second BIGGER one was a gatling gun, variations used in the Warthog (tank killer) and “PUFF”, the gunship. I hope those are mock up, fake UDT rounds in that gatling gun.

    And… I would give up a month’s supply of stogies to see you as part of the “B Team”, Curt! lol

    • I thought you’d get a kick out of this particular blog, Koji. I could have used your expertise along to explain to me what I was seeing. LOL As for being on the B team, maybe if I were 20. It would make for an interesting blog. 🙂 Curt

  9. BTW, the Honolulu Advertiser was one of the newspapers who had as a headline one week BEFORE Pearl Harbor that the Japanese would be attacking “that weekend”. 🙂 You gotta wonder why they printed that.

  10. was going thru some boxes and found a news paper like the one you have,japanese bomb pearl harbor .is it valuable thanks.

  11. Tuolumne County, California , and adjacent counties, Western side of the Mountains… we hear the booms, each time Hawthorn Depot Explodes old Ordinances.. In fact lately, windows are shaking and the sounds has been very loud, fraying nerves !!!

    • Ouch. I know that they have been destroying old munitions in Hawthorn. Sorry to hear that the explosions reach all the way in to Tuolumne County. I’ve always loved the area for its peaceful solitude, David. –Curt

  12. I live here ^_^ All of the bombs are defused and cemented over, lol. The tanks and guns/artillery are filled, as well 😉 Fun fact: Hawthorne AP is the largest ammo depot in the WORLD and EVERY round for the Gulf war and Desert storm passed through it 🙂 Now, they specialize in “expired munitions processing”, which is a fancy term for saying that they blow up the old ordinance so that it can’t be dug up by accident one day in the distant future 🙂

  13. Interesting that you mention watching those atomic tests, at the beginning of the blog- I have that same memory. I was born in ’51 and we lived at Darwin Mines, CA near Lone Pine. People, including us, would get up early in the morning and drive out to the Death Valley road, find a high spot to park, and wait- then BOOM! and the sky went to full sun. A earthquake ensued, then a wind, and the mushroom was visible from many miles away. I was about 3 or 4 then. It was impressive. Of course, the radiation cloud drifted from Yucca Mountain to…Utah, where it led to increases in cancer over the years.

  14. This is a great post, Curt. I can’t explain it, but the way you lightly talk about the potential to blow up the world and wiping out a forest and stuff in here…it’s creepy. It’s like that documentary Don’t Look Up: you’re kidding around about something deadly serious. That is a powerful strategy.

  15. Don’t fool yourself. Hawthorne is still active. They just want everyone to THINK it’s “old hat” but it’s not.

  16. I can just imagine you up watching the acropoliptic sky which I’m sure was like a big firework sky as a kid.
    But then “It was apocalypse now but we were taught that our ability to destroy the world assured a safe future. No wonder the youth of the 60s and 70s turned to drugs.”
    I have to agree with you there.

    Boy the paint job did make them look quite lovely and the little blue bombs were cheery enough reminding me a bit of my sea glass balls but looks are deceiving. Wild to see weapons that can destroy like that. Love the cash register. I always wish I had a room to keep all of these cool pieces (minus the weapons) and it killed me to part with our old slot machine from Harrah’s just recently but you just can’t keep everything. I can’t say I’ll be visiting but I always love a history lesson from you and museums are so intriguing, thanks. Glad you got out of dodge before those militants loaded up at the garage sales.

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