Oak Ridge and the area around it played a special role in World War II. You can learn all about this in Anderson and Roane Counties.
First of all, if you look at a map of Tennessee printed before World War II, you will note that Oak Ridge isn’t there. The place now occupied by Oak Ridge was rural before 1942. There were farming communities in the area, but that was about it other than trees, valleys and a long, narrow hill called Black Oak Ridge.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out in Europe, and it began to look like the U.S. would be drawn into it on the side of the Allies and against the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan and Italy. That year, a group of scientists including Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt informing him that they believed the Germans were on the verge of splitting the atom and creating a powerful new weapon.
Two years later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was drawn into World War II. Not long after that, Roosevelt got Congress to fund work on a weapon similar to the one that the scientists had told him about.
The secret mission was called the Manhattan Project and was split into three main locations — a valley in Anderson and Roane Counties, Tennessee, being one of the three. The Tennessee site was chosen in part because it was close to TVA’s Norris Dam, which was new at the time and was producing large amounts of excess electricity that were needed for such a project.
The federal government was in a hurry. People who lived on land the military wanted were told that the government would be buying their property immediately. Most 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 site was cleared and three large manufacturing plants were built. The plants were known as Y-12, K-25 and X-10, and thousands of people worked at these plants. The Y-12 and K-25 plants tried to separate Uranium 235 — used in the atomic bomb — from Uranium 238. Workers at the X-10 plant produced the element called plutonium in a uranium reactor.
However, most of the people who were working at Oak Ridge during World War II didn’t know anything about Uranium 235 or an atomic bomb. For security reasons, the purpose of the Manhattan Project was kept secret from almost all of its employees and everyone else in Tennessee, for that matter. “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.”
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 quickly.
By the summer of 1945 Oak Ridge had an estimated 75,000 residents, making the brand new town the fifth largest city in Tennessee. The project succeeded in its mission. In July 1945 small amounts of Uranium 235 produced at Oak Ridge were placed in a nuclear bomb that was detonated in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945–the world’s first nuclear explosion.
A bomb using Uranium 235 from Oak Ridge was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second atomic bomb using plutonium was dropped on Nagasaki.
Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
It was then, and only then, that the American public was told about the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge and all that had been done there.
There is a whole lot more to tell about the Manhattan Project in Tennessee. Who were the scientific and military leaders of the government project? From where did the U.S. government get all the Uranium ore in the first place? What became of all the land that had been acquired for the Clinton Engineering Works? What was the standard of living like for these workers? How were African-American workers treated? How did the U.S. Navy get the atomic bombs across the Pacific Ocean, and what happened to the sailors who delivered it? What are some of the more interesting first-person accounts from wartime life in Oak Ridge? What types of work is done at these sites today?
The best way to explore questions such as these is to visit a series of museums in Anderson and Roane Counties. (The different locations remind us that the Manhattan Project in Tennessee consisted of a series of huge plants located pretty far apart from each other.)
The first is Oak Ridge’s American Museum of Science and Energy (now at a new location at 115 Main Street East). Although the AMSE is primarily a science museum, it has many exhibits about the history of the Manhattan Project.
The second is the K-25 History Center near the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant (which is what the K-25 Plant was renamed in 1955). Like the American Museum of Science and Energy, the brand new K-25 History Center was financed by the U.S. Department of Energy. You can find it at 652 Enrichment Street.
The third is the Y-12 History Center, which is in the lobby of the Y-12 National Security Complex’s New Hope Center at 602 Scarboro Road.
The fourth is the Oak Ridge History Museum, which was created and staffed by history enthusiasts from the area. It focuses on the city’s history and the people of the Manhattan Project and the area. It’s address is 102 Robertsville Road.
The fifth is the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge at 461 W. Outer Drive, which has two sections that cover the history of the Manhattan Project.
All five of these facilities are open to the public and have regular operating hours (and the case of the AMSE and Children’s Museum, small admissions fees). In addition to these places, people who take part of organized tours can see the X-10 Graphite Reactor (shown on the right). But you cannot go to the Graphite Reactor except on a guided bus tour that can be arranged through the American Museum of Science and Energy.
If you are planning a field trip, bus tour, or family vacation, we realize that this is all very complicated. A good place to start is with the Education Department at the American Museum of Science and Energy.
Finally, if you are unable to come to Oak Ridge to see some of these amazing sites, check out this website produced by the U.S. Department of Energy. There is a huge amount of information here, and we recommend watching the short video called “A Nuclear Family” hosted by historian Ray Smith.