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The secret city: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Published on: August 3, 2010

By WARREN RESEN, Travel Writer


Warren Resen photo
A modern rendering of the atom stands in front of the American Museum of Science and Energy at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Sixty-five years ago the world changed forever. The date was August 6, 1945 and “Little Boy,” the uranium fueled atomic bomb, had been dropped on Hiroshima. The headline in the evening edition of The Knoxville News Sentinel of August 6, 1945 literally shouted in bold type that the “ATOMIC SUPER BOMB, MADE AT OAK RIDGE, STRIKES JAPAN.”

There were no twenty-four hour news programs back then so most of the world had to wait another day to hear about the momentous event. The joy in the Western World was palpable. People were literally dancing in the streets.

When the news broke, people went wild thinking the war with Japan was over. It took a second, more powerful plutonium bomb, named “Fat Man,” over the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later to accomplish that feat.

I was a kid of elementary school age at the time and remember the people’s joy, myself included. Then we asked ourselves, “What is an Atomic Bomb?”

We had no idea of the power of the bomb or that the Atomic Age had just been ushered in, only that World War II was over. President Truman only learned of the secret bomb, called the Manhattan Project, two weeks after he took office. Can you imagine keeping a secret of this magnitude today?

The people of Oak Ridge were thrilled believing that they had added so mightily to ending the war. Actually the project was so secret, and work so compartmentalized, that the local people had no inkling of the other locations where the bombs were manufactured and tested. The atomic bombs were actually assembled and tested at another secret facility in Los Alamos, NM.

Oak Ridge file photo
High school girls at their stations in Oak Ridge facility.

The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium for this first bomb was made, is called “The Secret City.” Today there is the impressive American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) telling the story of the city, its people and the race to produce fuel for “the bomb,” even though the people there literally had no idea of what they were working on.

The story has its beginnings in 1918 in Tennessee with construction of the Wilson Dam, later part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) system created by congressional charter in 1933. That was also the year the Norris Dam was begun in a remote Tennessee valley west of Knoxville.

In August 1939, a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Albert Einstein, alerted FDR to the splitting of the atom by German scientists and its potential to produce the most powerful weapon in human history. So began the Manhattan Project, a name chosen because the initial planning was done at Columbia University in Manhattan in New York City and the work was to be under the supervision of the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers which had been formed in June 1942. From 1942 to 1946, the Manhattan Project was the greatest engineering project in the history of the world.


Above is an official US Government file photo of the Hiroshima bomb blast.

A crash program was undertaken to find a site with lots of electric generating capacity, a ready made work force, near transportation, a mild climate and could be easily protected against the Germans.

The decision was made to locate the Manhattan Project in a valley west of Knoxville, TN, which fit all of the criteria. The area was sparsely populated, by government standards, had lots of open land and excess hydro-electric capacity thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority program. In full production, this project used up to 10% of all the electrical generating capacity in the country at the time.

About 1,000 families who lived in the area were given three weeks to move. And move they did, in many cases leaving land their families had farmed for generations. They were allowed to take everything they wanted, including livestock. There was no question about complying with government orders. Many families had sons in the service and looked at this as something they were doing for the war effort. It was a different time then, a much simpler time and we were fighting a common enemy. The government paid nominal amounts for the land, 59,000 acres, but nothing for the structures which were razed as quickly as possible.

When completed, the “Secret City” was enclosed with 94 miles of security fencing and protected by 1000 armed guards. The plan was for the city to house 13,000 people but the population went from zero to 75,000 during the three year life of the project. There were 125,000 workers, scientists and soldiers on-site who worked 24/7 during that time. In just 1-1/2 years it became the fifth largest city in Tennessee but was not shown on any maps. It was truly a “Secret Cityoak-ridge-banner.”

What happened to the enriched uranium as it was produced at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories? Small amounts were put in containers, locked in a special briefcase and handcuffed to the wrist of an Army lieutenant who then took a train to Chicago where he switched to another train headed for Los Alamos, NM. Apparently the amount being transported at any one time was not thought large enough to have any effect on the messenger.

In 1949 Oak Ridge was opened to the public and became incorporated as a city in 1959. Today Oak Ridge, despite its unusual beginnings, is like any other “normal” city except for the ever present reminders of its beginnings. Some of the original uranium producing facilities are still there and open for public tours.

One of the buildings, known as the K-25 Plant, was built with parallel wings each ½ mile long and covered more than 1,500 acres. At the time, it was the largest building in the world but is now in the process of being demolished. It will be replaced by an industrial park to be called the Heritage Center which will promote science for peaceful purposes.

While the Oak Ridge area will forever be linked to America’s atomic bomb program, there is a lot more to do and see in the area than just the Oak Ridge National Laboratory site. The 54,000 square foot Children’s Museum is a delight for all ages. Outdoor activities abound in the hundreds of miles of rivers created by the TVA dams. Knoxville and the U.S. Mint are only 18 miles away.


Albert Einstein, above, alerted President Roosevelt that German scientists had split the atom.

The marvelous 65 acre open-air Museum of Appalachia complex in nearby Norris, TN, is a must visit and is billed as “the most authentic and complete replica of pioneer Appalachian life in the world.” The museum is also a working farm.

A quick check of the Internet for Oak Ridge and east Tennessee will give you many reasons to visit this area in the foothills of the Smokies, an easy one or two day drive for most Floridians.