There is a city in eastern Tennessee not far from Knoxville that has a complex history. The series of events that happened in the once-rural area is like something out of a movie. The U.S. government created the town and managed to keep its purpose a secret from the world, including the American residents who were invited to live there. They were in complete shock when they learned what was happening, and how they had unknowingly helped the cause. It was ultimately one of the greatest operations of the 20th century.
Residents Were Inexplicably Evicted From Their Homes
With little warning, the U.S. government evicted residents living in parts of Anderson and Roane counties in Tennessee beginning in 1942. Officials did not explain to the citizens why they had to move, and some had just two weeks notice. There were about 3,000 people living in the area at the time, and the government provided very little in financial support for their relocation.
This area was full of farming communities during the early 19th century. One of its former residents, John Hendrix, who lived at the turn of the century, was known for being a mystic and a madman who had visions about the future.
The Natural Features Made It An Enticing Location
The government set its sights on the region of Tennessee for several reasons. First, it would not cost too much to relocate the relatively small number of people who lived there. In addition, it was near the highway and railway. Water and electricity were also provided due to the recent construction of the Norris Dam.
But what made the area most desirable was its location; about 20 miles from Knoxville and contained within a 17-mile-long valley in Appalachia. Dubbed “Site X,” the valley is surrounded by several ridges that could aid in protecting whatever is contained — man or machine — inside.
The Army Installed Fences & Checkpoints To Keep People Out
Once the town was cleared of its residents, it didn’t take long before the government took over. When the military started moving in, it piqued the curiosity of the people in surrounding towns, who couldn’t help but notice all the trucks and construction that started taking place.
By October 1942, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began amassing more than 60,000 acres in the area for its top secret mission. The government renamed the area “Oak Ridge.” The COE set up fences and checkpoints to keep out people who weren’t supposed to be there.
New Families Started Moving Into The Town
Before long, thousands of people started moving into the area, more than quadrupling the number of original residents. These men and women brought their families along with them. From the outside, Oak Ridge appeared like any other Southern town, albeit with gates and guard towers. It had all the usual comforts, including movie theaters, 13 supermarkets, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, and even a symphony orchestra.
Oak Ridge had 10 schools where the students attended every day. They had normal activities like girls basketball, too. There were churches and a library. Yet there were also some unusual aspects, such as the lack of sidewalks, and the fact that Oak Ridge was absent from all maps.
Residents Were Segregated By Color
Not unlike other towns in America at that time, Oak Ridge was a segregated community. Most of the African Americans held lower-ranking jobs, and as a result. They lived in “hutments,” or one-room shacks instead of houses, in an area near one of the plants. The area was designated “colored.”
Initially, there were plans to build houses for both white and black people that were equal in quality and size. However, there were not enough resources during the war to do so. When the war ended, hutments were torn down and permanent houses were built in the Gamble Valley.
Most People Were Unaware Of Oak Ridge’s True Purpose
By 1945, the town’s population grew to 75,000. People were housed in prefabricated modular homes and apartments, which were quick and easy to assemble. Engineers did not build an airport because of security reasons. Instead, the town consisted of 300 miles of roads and 55 miles of railroad tracks.
The roads and railway were constructed to transport materials to Oak Ridge, as well as within the community. The town received large shipments of materials that outsiders could not identify. Even Oak Ridge’s own residents were unaware of the town’s true purpose. Most of them only knew that they were working towards helping the war effort.
The Residents Were A Mysterious Bunch
Oak Ridge offered some amenities during World War II that other towns in America couldn’t provide to their residents. Oak Ridge citizens always had fresh produce. They never ran out of food stamps or money. While other Americans struggled with food shortages and other problems, Oak Ridge residents thrived.
It was easy to recognize someone from Oak Ridge if they traveled outside of town because they tended to shy away from others and didn’t talk about their town or themselves. The bottoms of their shoes were also covered in mud because the town was erected so quickly and didn’t have time to settle.
Lie Detector Tests Were Routinely Administered For Security Purposes
People who worked in Oak Ridge had to pass a lie detector test as part of their security screening. Many employees worked at one of four secret plants: Y-12, K-25, S-50, and X-10. Workers held all different types of jobs. Some were engineers and scientists, while others worked for the local businesses that provided food and other products and services to its residents.
There was one man, Ed Westcott, who was authorized to photograph the town. He took pictures of the area during the war and afterward. He documented people’s everyday lives as well as some of the construction and experiments that took place in the area.
Threatening Signs Warned Residents To Keep Their Mouths Shut
Those in charge of Oak Ridge wanted to make sure that its residents and workers kept quite about the activities that occurred in the community. They erected signs that warned citizens to not reveal any information about any of the projects they were involved in.
The sign above shows three monkeys with the words: “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” Other signs said: “Loose talks helps our enemy so, let’s keep our trap shut,” and “Who me? Yes you.. Keep mum about this job.”
Oak Ridge Consumed An Immense Amount Of Energy
It didn’t take long for people to figure out that Oak Ridge was a top-secret military installation. It was the height of America’s involvement in World War II, so people knew that the mysterious activities were likely war-related. Yet, no one knew exactly what went on inside the town. It would be years before the truth emerged.
One thing is for sure: Oak Ridge was consuming a lot of energy during the war. In fact, the town used one-seventh of all the electrical power that the United States produced. Whatever was going on inside, it was massive. And it consumed an enormous amount of energy.
The “Calutron Girls” Were Kept In The Dark About Their Work
The photo above depicts calutron operators at their panels in the Y-12 plant. Known as the “Calutron Girls,” they were mostly young women who moved to Oak Ridge to assist in the war effort. Women were hired due to wartime labor shortages.
The women were not aware of their actual purpose. They were monitoring dials and switches for a calutron, a device that separates uranium isotopes… can you see where this is going? In the foreground is a woman named Gladys Owens, who admitted she had no idea what she was doing until she saw this photo 50 years later.
Oak Ridge Was Also Known As “The Atomic City”
Oak Ridge is also known as “The Secret City,” “The Ridge,” “The City Behind the Fence,” and “The Atomic City.” It was also a production site for the Manhattan Project. It’s here that the United States conducted research and development to produce nuclear weapons with the help of Canada and the United Kingdom.
Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, worked together on the Manhattan Project. R&D for the project took place in dozens of sites, including Oak Ridge.
Residents Learned The Truth In 1945
Oak Ridge residents finally discovered on August 6, 1945, that the town had been created so its citizens could work on aspects of the atomic bomb. Residents gathered in Jackson Square, one of the town’s meeting points, and learned the truth. Some were thrilled to be part of such a project, while others were stunned that they had been involved in something so life-altering.
Regardless of what they felt after realizing the truth, one thing is for sure: their contributions and hard work had helped end World War II. While they may not have known exactly what they were doing, they knew it was to help their country.
Oak Ridge Was The Headquarters Of The Manhattan Project
After U.S. forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, people living in Oak Ridge finally discovered that their town was instrumental in defeating America’s enemies. In fact, the Tennessee community was the headquarters of the Manhattan Project.
One of the local newspapers ran the headline “Oak Ridge Attacks Japan.” It was a revelation. A few days later, the United States dropped another bomb in Japan, this time in Nagasaki. Shortly after, the Japanese surrendered, and it wasn’t long before the war ended. Without the hard-working employees in Oak Ridge, it’s unclear how much longer the war would have lasted.
Einstein Urged The US Government To Keep Its Nuclear Research A Secret
While the United States was the first to produce an atomic bomb, it was far from the only country that was involved in the nuclear arms race. Countries on both sides of the war competed to build a weapon so destructive that it would mean certain victory. Two people were largely responsible for the development of the Manhattan Project.
German scientist Albert Einstein and Italian scientist Enrico Fermi left Europe for the United States. They persuaded the American government and military experts to work on the nuclear project in a top-secret location so the enemy would have no idea what they were planning.
Oak Ridge Was The Perfect Location For Advanced Nuclear Weapons Research
The problem was that creating an atomic bomb was a huge undertaking. It would take a momentous effort to build an atomic bomb without prying eyes. Yet, in order for the United States to take down its enemies, it was essential that its scientific development occurred in an area hidden from spies and others who would benefit from learning of its location.
As a result, higher-ups in the Manhattan Project scouted out various spots and settled on Tennessee due to its low population and geographic location. It was there that employees developed materials for its top-secret project. The site was built for the X-10 Graphite Reactor to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from natural uranium.
Oak Ridge Also Had Nuclear Medicine & Radiation Therapy Centers
Photo credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
When the government built the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, it was the largest building in the world. But Oak Ridge also had other purposes. It contained the first nuclear medicine and radiation therapy centers in the United States. The photo above shows a cancer patient watching a physician pour gallium into his intravenous flask.
The Manhattan Project also involved two other major cities: Hanford-Richland in Washington and Los Alamos in New Mexico. The Los Alamos National Laboratory was the top-secret location for designing the atomic bomb. The Hanford project was home to the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor.
Following The War, The Government Gave Oak Ridge Back To Civilians
Two years after the war ended, Oak Ridge transformed from a military installation into a normal town run by civilians. The federal government removed the fences and guard towers, and the general public was allowed to buy homes and move in. It must be strange to live in a town that was once the epicenter of the Manhattan Project.
Fourteen years following the war, Oak Ridge was incorporated, and its location was finally included on maps. The town hired a city manager and formed a city council so it could be ruled locally and not by the federal government. Its secret project was finally declassified.
One Of The Plants Is Still Being Used To Process Nuclear Weapons
The government continues to run a nuclear research program in Oak Ridge. The S-50 plant was dismantled shortly following the war, but the K-25 plant, where uranium was processed, wasn’t demolished until 2013 through 2015. The Y-12 plant is used to process nuclear weapons and store materials. X-10 was turned into the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Department of Energy revealed in a declassified report in 1983 that Oak Ridge had released large amounts of mercury into the East Fork Poplar Creek between 1950 and 1977. The DOE was ordered by a federal court to comply with federal and state environmental regulations.
Tours Of The Original Facility Are So Popular They Sell Out
Visiting the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is not without risk. Radioactive materials are present in various areas. Several buildings are considered radiological hazards and are not open to the public. ORNL insists that the public is safe so long as people don’t enter restricted areas.