A rural Tennessee community was thrust onto the international stage when the truth came out about its ties to World War II. In 1942, in an effort to prevent the Germans from making their own version and in reaction to Pearl Harbor, Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists started the Manhattan Project. The secret project was made up of three remote locations where the research was conducted that would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb.
A town called Oak Ridge, Tennessee was chosen alongside locations in New Mexico and Washington for its relative remoteness, but easy access to additional research hubs in New York, Chicago, and DC. It was also needed for its abundance of water and electricity from nearby Tennessee Valley Authority dams. The Army Corps of Engineers bought 59,000 acres near Knoxville, giving small sums to the farmers they displaced, many of whom were uneducated. Sadly, some had moved here previously after being forced from the land around the Norris Dam and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, crops still in the ground.
Workers were recruited for all levels of work, ranging from high school graduates with no relevant experience to high-level scientists. The population quickly grew to 75,000, making it the fifth largest city in Tennessee. The facilities had to be shipped in with warehouses popping up along with 3,000 prefabricated homes shipped from Indiana. Men and women lived in separate dorms like they were in college. It fostered a community and some even got married while working here. But not all were equal. Black workers, even those with advanced degrees were segregated.
Most of the employees at the Clinton Engineer Works, as it was known to the public, had no idea what their role was in the war effort until much later. The facility worked to enrich uranium and plutonium in what would become the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Because of the importance of the work being done, secrecy was of the utmost importance. Earning the nickname of the “Secret City,” employees couldn’t talk about what they did with friends or family. Signs placed throughout the facility reminded workers to stay quiet.
One of the interesting stories that came out of the “Secret City” was the Calutron Girls, who were charged with watching the meters on a machine that separated isotopes of uranium. They were young women who had no experience working in science but were able to perform their jobs better than skilled scientists.
The rest of the story is well known. On August 6 and 9, 1945, the Oak Ridge-made bombs were dropped on Japan, killing over 200,000 people, many of which were civilians. It was the first and only use of nuclear weapons. But the work from the Manhattan Project also had some benefits as it led to advances in power, science, and technology. The X-10 Graphite Reactor created here was the world’s first continuously operated nuclear reactor. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory used its technology to test a NASA probe’s heat shield.
The Oak Ridge facility continued to be used fully through the Cold War and some parts of it are still used. The Y-12 National Security Complex maintains the United States’ nuclear stockpile, works with nations to dispose and decommission nuclear weapons, and uses uranium for the US Nuclear Navy. The facility recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. But because of the work that took place here, there has been contamination. The area was named a Superfund site in 1989 by the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, Oak Ridge is a destination on its own right. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park offers seasonal tours to US Residents with valid ID. It makes stops at the gatehouses that served as entrances to the secured site as well as a decommissioned church, the Y-12 center, K-25, and the Graphite Reactor. The American Museum of Science and Energy, where tours leave from, has exhibits on the project’s history and legacy.
You can also pay your respects to the Japanese lives lost in the bombings at the International Friendship Bell Peace Pavilion, created in 1993 for the 50th anniversary. There are exhibits on Oak Ridge before the bomb at the Oak Ridge History Museum. The town also has shops and restaurants, an arts culture with ballet and symphony, and miles of land that the government turned back over to the people for hiking trails.
Oak Ridge may no longer be a “secret city,” but it is worth discovering for those looking for an important place in American history.