1942 – 1946:
While Hitler and the Germans struggled to find the fuel source for a weapon that would give them the ultimate power, the United States was in the same race against time. In 1942, when thousands of soldiers were battling on the front lines across Europe, the United States government was looking for a site where they could build a top-secret city that would be used to create the world’s first Atomic Bomb.
Approximately 60,000 acres were purchased in East Tennessee near the town of Norris, site of the first TVA dam which would provide electricity, and Knoxville, home to a ready labor force. Shortly thereafter, scientists from across the country were called upon to reside in a Secret City.
Within three years, sparsely-settled farmland became the fifth largest city in Tennessee. Challenging scientific and engineering feats never before accomplished were completed here. One writer in 1945 described the magnitude of the over $1-billion Clinton Engineer Works (war-time name of the city of Oak Ridge – often abbreviated as C.E.W.) effort as the equivalent of building a Panama Canal each year.
At the height of the project, more than 75,000 people lived and worked in Oak Ridge, not knowing what they were working on, only knowing that they were helping the war effort.
Plants were built; guards were posted at all entry points into the city; and houses were built as quickly as one every half hour. Children went to school; housewives stood in the ration line; and workers kept silent about what they did all day. It was a town that worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Non-stop. Until finally, one Tuesday morning in August of 1945 the residents of Oak Ridge woke to find a newspaper headline declaring peace. It was only then that they learned what they had been working to build in the Secret City.
Oak Ridge has a population of just over 28,000, much of which is comprised of many of the workers who remained here after the Manhattan Project came to an end. They love to tell their story and share their secrets. In fact, a recent documentary film was produced to help tell their story while their voices can still be heard. “Secret City: The Oak Ridge Story, Part 1” describes the events that occurred in Oak Ridge during the war years. Part 2 depicts the city as it grew from the late 1940’s until today.
The history of Oak Ridge lives on through the American Museum of Science and Energy, which tells the story of Oak Ridge’s role in the Manhattan Project. It also explains the scientific and technological advances that Oak Ridge has made since the end of WWII.
An audio driving tour takes visitors on a journey to multiple historical sites in and around Oak Ridge. The self-guided auto tour highlights such sites as the K-25 site, the gaseous diffusion plant used to separate uranium 235 and 238; the Chapel on the Hill, the first church built in the city during the war; Historic Jackson Square, the original “town site” where residents shopped, ate and mingled; and the Wheat Community African Burial Ground, an 1850’s slave cemetery that contains more than 90 unmarked graves of slaves who had worked at the Gallaher-Stone Plantation.
The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge offers a hands-on cultural and educational center for kids of all ages, highlighting the pioneer and Manhattan Project history that Oak Ridge is known for, as well as offering entertainment in the form of hands-on exhibits such as a child-size dollhouse, a rainforest, and pioneer log homes.
The Secret City Scenic Excursion Train affords visitors the chance to take a 12-mile tour through the once secret K-25 Plant and the Blair Community. Historians explain the significance of the plant and one of the pre-war communities, as they explore the beautiful countryside of Oak Ridge. The University of Tennessee Arboretum offers over 250 acres of trees, shrubs and flowering plants that offer wonderful views, scenic trails, and a relaxing atmosphere. For more relaxation, Melton Hill Lake is a popular spot for rowers, hikers, and leisurely strollers. And outdoor enthusiasts find great spots for ATVing at Windrock Mountain and mountain biking at Haw Ridge.
Of the three Manhattan Project sites that were built to enrich the uranium needed for the bomb, two of them, the Y-12 Plant and X-10 Graphite Reactor, are back behind the fence as a result of the terror attacks on 9/11. But during the months of June through September, a special Public Bus Tour takes visitors (US citizens only) “behind the fence” for a glimpse at several historic sites, including a tour inside the X-10 plant. Other highlights on that tour include a drive to an overlook (not open to the general public) to view the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which at the time was the largest building in the world under one roof; and the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), which opened in April 2006 and will be used to further the research of neutrons. All tours are free with admission to the American Museum of Science & Energy, and are open to US citizens with proper identification.
For more information on Oak Ridge, America’s Secret City, call 800-887-3429 or visit www.OakRidgeVisitor.com.