Mississippi’s tiniest museum, the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum, will open a new month-long exhibit on Sept. 1 exploring the history of nuclear weapons testing around the country and its little-known history in the Hattiesburg area.
Almost 60 years ago under Project Dribble, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) conducted two tests in Lamar County, which were the only nuclear detonations to ever occur in the eastern U.S. The exhibition, titled Hattiesburg, You “Were” The Bomb, will feature artifacts on loan from the Las Vegas-based National Atomic Testing Museum, the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, and private collections through Sept. 30.
Nearly 30 items will be displayed, including artifacts from early atomic testing like AEC security badges and an Armed Forces Special Weapons Project material pass issued to a former site manager. Relics representing Hattiesburg’s atomic testing history include a Project Dribble-Salmon certificate of participation and a radiological survey meter used to detect and measure radiation. Additionally, children’s toys, such as an atomic robot and gun and Atomic Fireball candy, will represent how pop culture adopted nuclear science in the 1950s. Lastly, the exhibition will look at the aftereffects of nuclear experimentation through commemorative pins and a canned “Hanford Bear” teddy that was part of the Hanford Employees Association fundraiser in the 1980s.
“This exhibit will explore atomic testing that happened across the country, including a special connection to Hattiesburg,” says Rick Taylor, executive director of Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which manages the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum. “The government chose Hattiesburg as a testing site because of a large underground salt dome, based on their hypothesis that detonation of a nuclear device suspended within the salt cavity would lessen the chances of detection.”
On Oct. 22, 1964, 400 residents were evacuated from the Tatum Dome test site area, approximately 25 miles from downtown Hattiesburg. Adults were compensated $10 and children $5. At 10 a.m., the Salmon device was detonated with approximately one-third of the power of Little Boy, the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. As a result, the earth rose and roiled in waves, creeks ran black with disturbed sediment, and buildings as far as 30 miles away swayed for minutes. Within a week, hundreds of residents filed damage claims with the government, citing burst pipes, cracked masonry, and suddenly dry wells. The test was a success. The blast vaporized a spherical void in the salt 110 feet in diameter.
Two years later in December 1966, the second test was carried out as Sterling Event. A much smaller bomb, equal to 350 tons of TNT versus the first bomb’s 5,000 tons, was detonated in the cavity. As the scientists hypothesized, the cavity absorbed nearly all the blast’s seismic force. People on the surface barely felt a bump. The blasts, which gave the government ample data on how underground nuclear tests could be hidden and detected, were declared a success and served as the only nuclear detonations to ever occur in the eastern United States.
“We hope this fascinating exhibit will spark an interest in not only the Atomic Age but also our vast local history, which includes significant moments from the civil rights movements, military operations, and a strong position as an arts and culture destination in the Gulf South,” says Marlo Dorsey, executive director of VisitHATTIESBURG. “The Pocket Museum, with its special exhibits and creativity, offers visitors and locals a new reason to explore downtown Hattiesburg each month.” For more information about visiting Hattiesburg, visit www.visithburg.org.