Before World War II, there was no Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Many cities have been affected by wars. But Oak Ridge is one of the only cities to ever be entirely created because of a war.

In 1939, the United States was on the verge of war with Germany, Japan and Italy. That year, a brilliant scientist named Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt informing him that the Germans were on the verge of splitting the atom and create a powerful new weapon.

A couple of years later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was drawn into World War II. A few months later, Roosevelt got Congress to secretly fund work on such a weapon in four locations -- Anderson County, Tennessee, being one of the four. The Tennessee site was chosen in part because it was close to Norris Dam, which was new at the time and was producing large amounts of excess electricity that were needed for such a project.

A letter received by someone who owned land in what is now Oak Ridge

With the war on, the government was in a hurry. P
eople lived on land that the military wanted were told that the government would be buying their property immediately. Many of them were told about the project -- referred to in public documents as the Clinton Engineer Works -- only weeks before they were supposed to be off their farms.

The K-25 plant
Quickly the site was cleared and three large manufacturing plants were built. The plants were known as X-10, Y-12, and K-25. And, although the details of what went on in these massive facilities is above the scope of this web site, suffice it to say that each of the buildings was involved in trying to separate Uranium 235 -- used in the atomic bomb -- from Uranium 238.
Of course, we know this now, but most of the people who working at Oak Ridge during World War II didn't know anything about Uranium 235 or an atomic bomb. "The manager of one plant, for example, was kept completely isolated from other plants where different processes and methods were used," The New York Times later said. "Work was so compartmentalized that each worker knew only his own job, and had no inkling of how his part fitted into the whole."

Various types of early Oak Ridge housing
Tens of thousands of people were brought in from all over the country to work at these facilities, and in the early years these people were housed in all types of structures. As you can see from these pictures, most people lived in tiny houses that were built rather quickly.

Oak Ridge residents celebrate the end of World War II
By the summer of 1945 Oak Ridge had an estimated 75,000 residents, making the brand new town the fifth largest city in Tennessee. And the project succeeded in its mission. In July 1945 small amounts of Uranium 235 were carried from Oak Ridge to New Mexico, where they were placed in a nuclear bomb known as "Little Boy." That bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and a few days later Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

For more information on Oak Ridge, click here to take a virtual tour of the American Museum of Science and Energy.


1. "Oak Ridge: The Way it Was" -- Bill Carey for THFK
2. "A letter received" -- Bill Carey for THFK
3. "K-25" -- Ed Westcott
4. "Oak Ridge Housing" -- Ed Westcott
5. "Residents celebrate" -- Ed Westcott