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Inside America’s Secret Atomic City
Most of the 75,000 residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee had no idea they were processing uranium until the bombs dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. They had settled in the mysterious town, a “secret city”, with very little knowledge of what they would do there, other than the promise that their work was going to help end the war. Sure enough, on August 6th, 1945, a nuclear superbomb that the young men and women of Oak Ridge had helped develop, effectively ended World War II.
These photographs taken by the only authorised photographer for the entire town, Ed Westcott, documented life at Oak Ridge, from everyday moments of a seemingly normal suburban American town, to the residents performing their ‘tasks’ and ‘duties’ inside the secret nuclear facilities.
Oak Ridge is a name that was given to the 56,000 acres of land in Tennessee, West of Knoxville, at a cost of $3.5 million by the U.S. governmement. It was established in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project, the massive top secret American, British, and Canadian operation behind the development of the atomic bomb.
Billboards across the town reminded the residents of Oak Bridge to stay tight-lipped and motivated for the job at hand– even if they didn’t understand what they were doing it for.
“If somebody was to ask you, ‘What are you making out there in Oak Ridge,’ you’d say, cents an hour,'” recalled one resident¹.
Despite being open to the public, even the non-military part of the town of Oak Bridge was fenced in and guarded.
The vehicle inspection stop had no exceptions– everyone was searched, including the highest ranking military officials. Secrecy was top priority and if any of the residents and workers started asking too many questions about the nature of their jobs beyond the specific duties given to them, government agents would pay them a visit within a few hours and show them to the gates.
1946, Oak Bridge telephone operators getting ready for a shift change at the switchboard.
Workers weren’t allowed to say certain words, such as ‘helium’ or even the names of the equipment they were working with.
In the recently released book The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan reveals the stories of the women who worked in the secret city. One worker, Colleen Black speaking to NPR remembers her factory days at Oak Ridge:
“You’d be climbing all over these pipes, and testing the welds in them. Then they had a mass spectrometer there, and you had to watch the dials go off, and you weren’t supposed to say that word, either. And the crazy thing is, I didn’t ask. I mean, I didn’t know where those pipes were going, I didn’t know what was going through them … I just knew that I had to find the leak and mark it.”
After the war, Oak Ridge worker, Mary Anne Bufard’s spoke to a radio show about her unusual mysterious duties:
It just didn’t make any sense at all. I worked in the laundry at the Monsanto Chemical Company, and counted uniforms. I’ll tell you exactly what I did. The uniforms were first washed, then ironed, all new buttons sewed on and passed to me. I’d hold the uniform up to a special instrument and if I heard a clicking noise — I’d throw it back in to be done all over again. That’s all I did — all day long.
via The Nuclear Secrecy Blog
Of course Mary would later learn she was screening for radiation.
Not understanding what they were doing or knowing what it was for didn’t do much to help morale in the factories, causing rumours to spread and suspicion to arouse. Workers were continually told they were doing a very important job but couldn’t see the results of their duties. One notable theory amongst workers was that Oak Ridge was a prototype socialist community masterminded by Eleanor Roosevelt as part of her plan to turn America communist.
Put people to work in a factory, tell them not to ask questions, throw in a few propaganda billboards around the place and you start to see why such theories arose.
So what do you do to fix a problem such as low morale in your secret city?!
You create the ideal wholesome American suburban town, complete with roller-skating rinks, bowling alleys, sports teams, theatres, shopping & more, of course!
Oak Ridge residents Louise Cox, Vilma Strange, and Marilyn Angel at the Oak Ridge swimming pool in 1946.
Counting money/votes at the Ford, Bacon, & Davis Valentine Dance. 1945
“We were very young,” former worker Colleen Black told NPR. “We were so young that we didn’t have a funeral home! And so you got acquainted and you went to the dances on the tennis courts and the bowling alleys, and the recreation hall.”
Lines outside the City Center A&P.
Another line at the Oak Ridge Post Office.
Your average bus stop? (With routes to the local uranium enrichment facilities). By 1945, Oak Ridge was home to 75,000 people with one of the largest bus systems in the entire United States. They were also using more electricity than New York City.
Setting up the bus route? 1944
Shirley Davis and an unidentified woman in the city directory office, 1944
Housing for Oak Ridge residents was allocated by the government using a lettering system according to the status of the workers and the size of their families. Higher ranking workers with bigger families would have been typically allocated an “F” home, a two story four-unit structure. There were also “A” houses (two story duplexes with three bedrooms) and “B” houses (smaller single story homes with two bedrooms).
Then there were the “flat tops” typically temporary structures for young newcomers, although chronic shortages of housing and supplies during the war years probably made them a more permanent solution for many.
Unidentified clerks waiting on woman in the dorm room assignment, 1945
This abandoned cabin was photographed in 1947, a few years after the U.S. government took over the 56,000 acres in East Tennessee. It had previously been a farmland where some families were given just two weeks’ notice by the government to vacate the farms that had been their homes for generations. Others had settled there after having already being displaced by the government in the 1920s and 30s to make way for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Norris Dam.
Oak Ridge children playing in an atom plane, 1945.
After the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, several physicists who participated in the Manhattan Project founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, to begin an urgent educational program about atomic weapons.
For the many workers of the Manhattan Project who had been the enriching uranium used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this V-J day celebration in downtown Oak Ridge in August of 1945 would have been the first time, along with the rest of the world, that they learned of the existence of a superbomb.
Two years after World War II, Oak Ridge was demilitirized and shifted to civilian control. In 1966, an American Museum of Science and Energy was founded to give tours of the control room and reactor face.
“In 1983, the Department of Energy declassified a report showing that significant amounts of mercury had been released from the Oak Ridge Reservation into the East Fork Poplar Creek between 1950 and 1977.” While a federal court order was given to bring the Oak Ridge Reservation into compliance with environmental regulations, finding out the current status of this may call for an Erin Brockovich moment on a rainy day.
The historic K-25 uranium-enrichment plant wasn’t demolished until May of 2013 (pictured above), while the Y-12 facility, originally used for electromagnetic separation of uranium, is still in use for nuclear weapons processing and materials storage. And the U.S. government is still the biggest employer in the Knoxville metropolitan area. As of November 2012, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is also home to the world’s fastest supercomputer.
But what is left of that old residential town for the workers of Oak Ridge? This old hotel known, pictured above, as the Alexander Inn, picture above in 1947 is one of the few remnants of the original secret city.
Built during the Manhattan Project to accommodate official visitors including dignitaries and many important nuclear physicists, the hotel finally closed its doors in the mid 1990s. Since then, it has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair.
Was the Manhattan Project America’s very own Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or were the residents of Oak Ridge the unsung heroes of World War II?
In the immediate postwar years, the Manhattan Project would go onto conduct testing of 23 nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll, which permanently contaminated the islands and displaced its indigenous residents.
Building Oak Ridge
Original plans called for the military reservation to house approximately 13,000 people in prefabricated housing, trailers, and wood dormitories. By the time the Manhattan Engineer District headquarters were moved from Washington, DC to Tennessee in the summer of 1943 (Groves kept the Manhattan Project's office in Washington and placed Col. Kenneth D. Nichols in command at Tennessee), estimates for the town of Oak Ridge had been revised upward to 45,000 people. By the end of the war, Oak Ridge was the fifth largest city in Tennessee. While the Army and its contractors tried desperately to keep up with the rapid influx of workers and their families, services always lagged behind demand.
The town site was in the northeast corner of the reservation, a strip less than one mile wide and six miles long with hilly terrain descending from the Black Oak Ridge in the north. Town planners were originally to provide housing for an estimated 30,000 people, but by 1945, the population had reached 75,000. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) envisioned pleasant neighborhood communities with libraries, schools and shopping centers. However, wartime constraints limited the availability of labor and materials. Rather than performing time-consuming grading, houses were adjusted to fit the contours of the land. Most of Oak Ridge’s kitchens faced the street to minimize the length of plumbing and utility lines.
Oak Ridge, the Town the Atomic Bomb Built
"Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima, made with uranium-235 from Oak Ridge
In 1943, after graduating from Washington and Lee University, Bill Wilcox landed a coveted job as a government chemist and was sent to a city that didn’t exist.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then known only as the Clinton Engineering Works, was conspicuously absent from any map. On 60,000 acres of farmland framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it was one of the United States’ three secret cities—remote sites chosen by Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, evacuated of their civilian inhabitants, and developed for the specific purpose of producing an atomic bomb. The men and women of the Clinton Engineering Works would help provide the material for the bomb. “I was told I would be working on uranium, and was sternly cautioned, ‘That’s the last time you will hear that word, and you must never speak it,’” Wilcox, now 87, recalled.
Wilcox’s experience was atypical of the 75,000 government workers and construction personnel who populated the gated district from 1942 to 1945. Many had never heard of uranium until August 6, 1945—65 years ago—when radio broadcasts and newspapers announced that the most powerful weapon ever created had been dropped on a city in Japan, ending the war 22 days later.
The Clinton Engineering Works opened its gates to the public in 1949, and was renamed Oak Ridge today, its residents are keenly aware of their atomic heritage. The city is home to two of the most advanced neutron science research centers in the world, and the government is still the area’s major employer. But Oak Ridge has come a long way from the stretch of cultivated fields stippled with charmless industrial plants, prefabricated houses, and signs warning its denizens, “What you see here…when you leave here, let it stay here.” Trees that were planted in wartime have since grown tall, and the city is clean and well manicured. Still, the opportunities to celebrate its unique place in history are plentiful.
Visitors to Oak Ridge should start their journey at the American Museum of Science and Energy, which provides a wonderful overview of the city’s wartime past. Its exceptional exhibit includes an original 576-square-foot flat-top house—the type of dwelling a scientist or plant worker would have moved into with his family during the war years. The boxy prefab building, composed of three sections, was designed for quick assembly at the height of the Manhattan Project, a house went up every 30 minutes.
Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, the architecture firm commissioned to design the original communities within the Clinton Engineering Works, created several types of homes for Manhattan Project workers, including dormitories for single men and women. Many were made of cemesto, a mixture of cement and asbestos. House hunting was never an issue for new residents, who were assigned accommodations based on their position and rank. The houses were rented, not sold, and modifications were forbidden. Ten years after the war, the government put the houses up for sale. Bill Wilcox, now the Oak Ridge city historian, reports that 90 percent of those buildings are still in use throughout the city. Though homeowners have made changes—siding, eaves, paint—to distinguish their houses from the others, some Oak Ridge neighborhoods still retain an eerie, modular quality.
A short distance from the American Museum of Science and Energy is A. K. Bissell Park, home of the Secret City Commemorative Walk, a recent and charming addition to the city from its Rotary Club. Located in a beautiful garden, the walk is a memorial to the individuals who came to Oak Ridge during the war. Stroll along the figure eight–shaped path and take in the bronze plaques offering stories of wartime life. Though the work was intense, the young residents had fun, too. Many of them, like Wilcox, were just out of college the average age in the community during the war was only 27. Tennis courts, then the only paved surface, doubled as dance floors. Residents remember the time as one of excitement, enjoyment, and devotion to a common cause.
Much of what originally brought people to Oak Ridge can still be seen: three of four plants used to produce material for the atomic bomb survive. These buildings are within 30 minutes of the city center, on what are today the sites of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Department of Energy East Tennessee Technology Park, and the Y-12 National Security Complex. On weekdays, the Department of Energy (DOE) operates a three-hour bus tour of these facilities, isolated in a 17-mile-long valley studded by parallel ridges—a major reason the spot was chosen for the Manhattan Project in the first place. If a catastrophic explosion occurred, the ridges would act as buffers between the plants.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory was established in 1948 from the facility codenamed X-10, where plutonium was extracted from irradiated slugs of uranium, and encompasses the original graphite reactor. The exterior and interior of the building that houses the reactor are, as they were then, army green. No longer in service today, the facility is a well-preserved throwback to the days when it produced radioisotopes. With no air conditioning or heating, windows at the top provided the only airflow. Inside, visitors can stare into the giant face of the graphite reactor, which is pocked with more than 1,200 openings into which workers once inserted uranium slugs with long rods. The dark control room, cluttered with knobs, switches, and analog clocks and controls, seems simple and ancient compared with today’s sleek technology.
From a nearby overlook, to the west on State Highway 58, you can see the original K-25 building—the plant where U-235, the fissionable uranium isotope, was separated from U-238, the heavier, more stable isotope, using a process called gaseous diffusion. It cost $500 million to build (the equivalent of more than $6 billion today), and when it was completed in 1945 it was one of the largest single-roofed buildings in the world.
Dormant since 1987, the enormous U-shaped structure has deteriorated and is currently being torn down. It contains original equipment, some of which is still classified. The demolition will cost more than $1 billion and will take several more years, at which time the area will be used for industries in the Department of Energy’s Eastern Tennessee Technology Park. However, the government plans to preserve K-25’s Gaseous Diffusion Process Building along with some of its equipment, so future generations can learn of K-25’s World War II—and Cold War—era contributions.
The closest a visitor can get to K-25 is via the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train, which follows a rail line that carried construction equipment and supplies in 1943 and 1944. Also visible on the route is a Tennessee Valley Authority substation from the 1940s, which helped generate the the massive amount of electricity required by the plants. The popular 12-mile roundtrip excursion runs the first and third Saturdays of summer months.
The city’s third remaining Manhattan Project plant, Y-12, is a bustling DOE facility that still manufactures, manages, and stores nuclear materials. Aside from the New Hope Center for visitors with a small exhibit hall, access is restricted. But it is remarkable to think that Oak Ridge’s legacy continues today. On this site, beginning in 1943, workers created weapons-grade uranium using a process called electromagnetic isotope separation. Those who knew they were working with uranium were instructed to call it by a code name, tuballoy. One local story tells of a Y-12 scientist who, after seeing newspaper reports that the uranium in the Hiroshima bomb had come from Oak Ridge, was finally able to speak the name of the secret he kept since he first came to Tennessee and ran through the laboratory hallway screaming, “Uranium! Uranium!”
That seems to be a common trait among the men and women who settled Oak Ridge: the eagerness to reveal, and preserve, the secrets of their atomic city.
Planning a trip? Visit the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information.
An Air Force officer flew a plane into a hurricane for the first time on a bet
Posted On May 11, 2021 21:53:30
Col. Joseph Duckworth was one of the Air Force’s most skilled pilots. Although a flyer during World War II, he never saw combat behind the stick of any aircraft. Despite that lack of combat experience, he would go on to be one of the USAF’s most legendary pilots.
The reason for his fame stemmed from his technical knowledge, knowledge that allowed him to become the first person to fly into a hurricane, all the way to the eye, in a single-engine plane and live to tell about it. He did it all on a bet.
Col. Joseph Duckworth at his desk at Columbus Army Air Field in 1942. In Columbus, he was known simply as “Joe Duck.” Today Duckworth is known as the “father of Air Force instrument flying.” Photo by: Army Air Corps photo
In 1941, flying in bad weather was hard. A lot of pilots died because they couldn’t actually use the instrument panel in the cockpit. This may sound insane by today’s standards, but according to Duckworth himself, even pilot trainers didn’t know the instruments.
The weather, one pilot told Air Force Magazine, killed more American pilots than the enemy ever did.
Col. Duckworth joined the Army Air Corps in 1927 and became a civilian pilot shortly afterward. In 1940, he was recalled to active duty. He was immediately surprised and appalled at how new pilots were being trained before going off to war. It was almost suicidal.
“The first shock I received was the almost total ignorance of instrument flying throughout the Air Corps,” Duckworth said after the war. “Cadets were being given flight training as if there were no instruments and then directed to fly an aircraft across the Atlantic at night. Losses in combat were less than those sustained from ignorance of instrument flying alone.”
Duckworth, upon taking over training the Army Air Forces, implemented a system to train pilots on all instruments. Estimates say this training saved the lives of thousands of Air Force pilots worldwide and earned Duckworth the honorific title of “father of modern-day Air Force instrument flying.”
In 1943, Duckworth entered the world history books when he flew an AT-6 single-engine training aircraft into a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Without permission from his superior officers on base, he took off from Bryant Field in Texas and flew right toward the eye of a category-1 hurricane.
The bet came on the morning of July 27, 1943 over coffee in the mess hall at Bryant Field. It turned out to be more of a bar bet. With a surprise hurricane on the way, the U.S. Army wanted to move its aircraft out of the storm’s path.
A visiting group of British pilots stationed at the base and taking instrument flying classes scoffed at the idea. The weather back home was often bad. Back in England, they flew in storms and their planes weathered the rains all the time. They laughed at the fragility of the American air forces in the face of the oncoming storm.
Then-Lt. Col. Duckworth took exception to their comments, so he bet the British aviators that he could take a single-engine trainer up, fly through the hurricane and come home with no issues. As the commander of Bryant Field, he knew he would be able to get a plane up, so long as no one above him knew what he was doing.
He got a navigator, Lt. Ralph O’Hair, and immediately took off toward the hurricane. As they flew through sheets of rain, Lt. O’Hair thought about what it might be like to parachute from an aircraft in the middle of a hurricane.
But Duckworth was as skilled as everyone thought, whether he could see out of the cockpit or not. Before they knew it, they were in the calm of the storm’s 10-mile-wide eye. After flying around for a while, they punched back into the storm itself and headed home.
When he came back to Bryant Field, he went right back up into the storm, taking a meteorologist with him, making history twice in the same day.
Road Trip to the Secret City: Atomic History in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Science, secrecy, and a large sense of scale uniquely identify those sites associated with the Manhattan Project. Of the three primary sites -- Los Alamos, New Mexico Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee -- the latter has always captured my interest because of its moniker “The Secret City.”
The Manhattan Engineer District built an entirely new military reservation on 59,000 acres in an isolated area of rural Tennessee. Construction on the site began in 1942, with the townsite located in the northeast corner of the six-mile-long reservation. Clinton Engineer Works, the Army’s name for the Oak Ridge Manhattan Project site during World War II, hosted the Project’s uranium enrichment plants (K-25 and Y-12) and the pilot plutonium production reactor (X-10).
After reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II and supporting the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park, I felt compelled to visit the city which had fascinated me for years. I convinced my sister, a fellow history buff who had also recently read Kiernan’s book, to take an atomic-inspired road trip to eastern Tennessee.
Completed in 1936, the powerful Norris Dam played a significant role in the success of the Project in Oak Ridge.
Driving to Oak Ridge, I passed through the adjacent town of Clinton and instantly made the connection to Clinton Engineer Works. Driving southwest on Tennessee 61, the roadway curved and bended around the Clinch River. Later during our trip, we traveled to Norris Dam, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Dam constructed as part of the Works Progress Administration. Located upstream of the Clinch River, Norris Dam is part of the Project’s story in Oak Ridge. The prevalence of TVA dams and their power capacity played an integral part in the selection of the site for the Project.
Our trip started at the American Museum of Science and Energy. During the summer, the Department of Energy (DOE), in partnership with the AMSE, host bus tours of the DOE Oak Ridge sites. The tour includes the three main historic sites at the Oak Ridge reservation: Y-12, X-10, and K-25. The tour also features other areas within the reservation typically off-limits, including the Bethel Valley Church.
Calutron operators at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
The tour stops at the New Hope Visitor Center, which features displays and artifacts about the history of Y-12. For security reasons, the tour doesn’t enter Y-12. Through photos and an outside-of-the-gate glance, you can still understand the size and scope of this facility today while capturing a glimpse into the high security atmosphere surrounding the site.
After Y-12, we headed into the heart of the reservation. The distance between the two plants allowed us to reflect on the space between each site -- intentional, of course, but still dramatic while nestled between heavily forested areas.
After passing through the security gates, we entered the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). We learned that scientists from around the world visit Oak Ridge to use the ORNL during a brief drive-by of the Spallation Neutron Source.
The concrete loading face of X-10 includes small, colorful holes, where workers would push uranium slugs into the reactor with long rods.
X-10 Graphite Reactor
The dominant feature of the interior is the Graphite Reactor Loading Face, which towers over the entire space. We climbed into the authentic control room, sitting next to the center of the loading face. The original log book is next to the control desk, open to the page from November 4, 1943 -- the date when the reactor was first “criticality reached.”
The X-10 reactor control room is authentically preserved, from lighting to the unique knobs and levers that controlled the reactor.
I noticed the National Historic Landmark plaque for X-10 bears a date of 1966, only 23 years after its construction. This early designation recognizes its vast significance to American history. The industrial character, with exposed steel trusses, steel casement windows, and concrete columns, all create a space that demonstrates the science and manufacturing that was at the heart of the Project.
We learned that K-25 was at one time the largest building in the world at 44 acres. Although it was mid-demolition, and contemporary buildings covered the grounds as well, it seemed as if the site stretched for miles on the horizon. The bus tour took us around the site, with dense trees providing a modest boundary for the East Tennessee Technology Park.
Even from a distance, Regan could see the ongoing demolition of the massive K-25.
My immediate thought turned to the modest architecture of all the sites, constructed quickly and with an emphasis on function, not style. However, this was the true cultural center for those working at Oak Ridge, where the Army attempted to provide some normalcy for its isolated community.
An original, Manhattan Project-era flattop house is authentically interpreted as an outdoor exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy.
An original 1940s Flattop House is an outdoor display at AMSE, complete with original furnishings and materials. These simple, minimally sized homes provided housing for predominately white families working in Oak Ridge during the Project years. The prefabricated homes followed standard plans, and the demand for housing led to the use of temporary materials, such as cemesto board, to increase the speed of construction.
Driving around the vicinity of the townsite, we immediately recognized homes with these structural bones. These homes have been modernized with vinyl siding, contemporary windows, and additions, but at their core they maintain the visual integrity of the World War II-era housing. After viewing the original Flattop home on display, I was astonished these temporary homes survived, although modified, for over 50 years.
Shift change at the facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Visiting Oak Ridge provided a sense of scale and sense of place unlike anything I’ve read about the Manhattan Project. The Project itself was a massive endeavor, but the physical place itself is on such a large scale it cannot be truly understood unless in person.
The distance between each of the three primary sites -- Y-12, X-10, and K-25 -- are the equivalent of the distance between small towns in my home state of Indiana. The commute for workers from the townsite to each plant is farther than my commute to work today. Through experiencing these sites firsthand, we can better grasp the monumental scale of the Manhattan Project through its extraordinary impact on our built heritage.
Raina Regan is a Community Preservation Specialist for Indiana Landmarks in Indianapolis. Raina enjoys exploring historic places on the open road and spreading awareness about heritage through Instagram.
Beautiful hidden spots in Tennessee
What unique tours in Tennessee can I take?
Across Tennessee, tourists and natives of the Volunteer State alike can discover an abundance of fascinating destinations and spectacular natural sights to explore. Once used as a shelter during the Civil War, Ruby Falls in Chattanooga is an incredible underground waterfall hidden in the Lookout Mountain Caverns cave system. The falls are brilliantly lit in glowing multicolored lights making it a dreamy destination to tour. In Pigeon Forge, take a step back in time at The Titanic Museum. The museum was built to look like the real RMS Titanic, just half the size. Mint Julep Experiences in Nashville offers distillery tours and lovers of this iconic southern cocktail can sample whiskey straight from the source.
What are the most unique places to spend the night in Tennessee?
Pack your bags! There’s no better way to experience Tennessee’s charm than spending a couple of nights away from home in one of our state’s many one-of-a-kind stays. One of Tennessee’s best kept secrets is Forest Gully Farms, a delightfully outfitted underground hut in Santa Fe. The surrounding 15 acres of farmland are dotted with fruit trees, friendly farm animals, lush native plants, and even a nearby waterfall. For outdoor lovers, Yurts have become popular stays offering cozy, comfortable, and completely unique accommodations. The Yurts at Blanche Manor in Copperhill are appointed with all your modern glamping necessities, including a queen-sized bed. Pigeon Forge is home to many treehouse cabin destinations offering guests an opportunity to feel like a kid again!
What are the best road trips through Tennessee?
Taking a scenic road trip along the Natchez Trace Parkway is an unforgettable experience. This forest trail is steeped in fascinating history and spans 440 miles once trekked by Native Americans and later 18th-century European explorers. A road trip on “Old Natchez Trace” takes you through some of Tennessee’s most stunning landscapes of verdant rolling hills with plenty of scenic overlooks to observe native wildlife and waterfalls. Mileposts along the trace help travelers locate historic sites and nearby natural attractions. Dozens of hiking trails are easily accessible along the route when you need to get out and stretch your legs and campgrounds are plentiful for overnight stays.
Secrecy, not safety
In Española’s Valdez Park, Beata Tsosie Peña, 38, is sitting with her young son near a freshly terraced slope where she will soon help plant trees as part of a new community garden.
Peña was born in the nearby Santa Clara pueblo, and is coordinator of the environmental justice programme at Tewa Women United (TWU), a civil society organisation led by indigenous women in the area (Tewa is the name of a native language group). Trujillo is also on the board of TWU.
A very youthful community, Oak Ridgers complemented their work with an active social life. Dances were one of the most popular events. Most were unaware of the overall mission of the project.
Narrator: The average age at Oak Ridge was 27. In their off hours, Oak Ridgers enjoyed many different forms of recreation. Mary Lowe Michel and Colleen Black recall one popular activity: dances on tennis courts.
Mary Lowe Michel: Almost any night of the week you could go to the recreation hall and dance. Most of it was recorded music, except on weekends we had live music. This guy would bring his equipment and play records and we would dance on the tennis courts.
Colleen Black: We swing danced, we jitterbugged and we get all these GI’s and all the guys from other places that really knew how to dance. I mean, maybe they would even throw somebody up over their head and down through their legs like they do on the movies. Lots of dancing.
Mary Lowe Michel: The spirit was one of freedom. A lot of us had never been away from home before, and we were enjoying our freedom.
A Visit to the Secret Town in Tennessee That Gave Birth to the Atomic Bomb
Eighteen miles west of Knoxville lies the town of Oak Ridge, birthplace of the atomic bomb. We drove over a recently constructed road and I asked the driver, a young private, when the road was built and how far it extended. He smiled obligingly, hesitated and finally said: “Suppose it’s perfectly all right to tell you, but I wish you’d inquire about it from the proper authorities when we get to Oak Ridge.”
That was my first lesson in what is a habit of long standing with Oak Ridgers: security. I found out that security includes not only the Clinch River and Cumberland Mountains which keep the outside world from this atomic city. I saw gates within gates and barbed wire fences and signs warning of “Prohibited Zones” and “Restricted Areas.” And posters in dormitories, offices and stores: “Protect Project Information….”
People in authority say, “Don’t quote me on this” or “This is off the record.”
A young scientist told me, “Even those who talked in their sleep learned to keep their mouths shut.” I asked naively wherein lay the danger of talking in one’s sleep, and the reply was: “What if the wife heard you?” Things aren’t so bad now, he said with relief. “There was a time, coming home from the lab, when I couldn’t talk to my wife at all. I pretty well knew what the Project was making, but I couldn’t tell you. We’d sit around the dinner table and the strain was terrible. A man could bust. Then we started quarreling. Over nothing, really. So we decided to have a baby.”
A psychiatrist at the Oak Ridge Hospital told me of his increased work load during the days before the Bomb was dropped. “The strain was terrible,” he said. “I had my hands full. But practically no one talked. One fellow couldn’t stand it, so he told his wife. But she felt the secret was too much for her and she told it to a friend. So they had to terminate all three of them in a hurry.”
Actually very few of the 75,000 Oak Ridgers knew what was being done on this great reservation. Some rumors had it that synthetic rubber was being made. Wiseacres said they were getting ready to manufacture buttons for the Fourth Term. One plant didn’t know what the other was doing, and even within plants the work was completely departmentalized. The people on top knew, the scientists knew, but they didn’t talk. The Bomb hit Hiroshima and the Oak Ridge Journal ran a banner head: “Oak Ridge Attacks Japan.”
But the people still don’t talk. The whole world knows what Oak Ridge is producing. What isn’t known is how it’s being produced. As an outsider you will be heard out with tolerant suspicion when you talk of atomic fission or the Bomb, but if you mention plutonium or U-235, the cold stares set in. The more polite Ridger will listen to your question, dig in his pocket for the Smyth Report, and pointing to a well worn page, will say: “There is your answer.”
The fact of the matter is, the Smyth Report contains more information about the Bomb than most people in this town possess. The ones who knew more keep it to themselves, and the rest feel it’s none of your business.
At first glance you wonder what all these thousands of people from all parts of the United States are doing in this hidden Tennessee country. From the ridges which lace the reservation in all directions, you look in vain for signs of industrial activity. Finally you discover several smokestacks. But they are smokeless. All over the place, seemingly planless at first, are a jumble of hutments, barracks, dormitories, trailer camps. Perched on the ridges are the demountables on stilts looking like chicken coops, the houses and permanent apartments. The overall impression is a combination of army base, boomtown, construction camp, summer resort. The “Colored Hutment” section looks like an Emergency Housing Slum Area.
I asked my driver, a young woman from this Bible Belt country, where the plants were. “We’ll git to ‘em,” she said with a knowing smile. “It takes time.” And like a trained guide she pointed to the neighborhoods and called them off: “Where you’re staying, that’s Jackson Square, main residential and business section.” I scribbled in my notebook: Pine Valley, Elm Grove, Grove Center, Jefferson Center, Middletown, Happy Valley. While pointing out the neighborhoods, she also suggested that I jot down the A&P’s, the Farmers’ Markets, Supermarkets, and a hot dog stand selling Coney Island dogs for ten cents. She called my attention to the fact that in the Trailer Camps the streets were named after animals: Squirrel, Terrier, Raccoon. But I didn’t ask her how come there was a Lincoln Road in the heart of Tennessee.
“I want you-all to write a good story about Oak Ridge,” she said warningly. “There’s been many of you writers from the North, but I ain’t seen a good story yet. You fellas don’t seem to git the sperit of this place.” I heard a great deal more on the subject of “the spirit” from articulate residents during my stay.
“There’s 53 old cemeteries here,” my informant continued, “spread over the 95,000 acres of Roane an’ Anderson Counties. When the people was moved off the land for the Project to commence, the Army promised it would take care of the cemeteries. And they do.” On Decoration Day the approximately 3,000 former inhabitants of these ridges are all granted passes to come and decorate the graves. “What happens when somebody on the Project dies?” I asked. “Well,” my driver said, “they’s shipped back home where they’s from.” What’s more, she added, few people ever die here, because most of the workers are young. “I never seen a grandmother in two years I been here,” she said.
The plants are widely dispersed and hidden in the valleys. Miles of wooded areas separate them from one another and from the residential districts. Mountains and ridges prevent any observation until you are actually near them. First come the warning signs, then the big fences and guard towers, and in the background are the massive atomic fortresses. Again there are no smokestacks, and no smoke pours out. I said to my guide it didn’t seem to me as if anything were going on inside those plants. “Plenty going on,” she replied, “just ain’t no smoke to it.”
The mystery deepened even more with the realization that while a great many things entered the huge structures, very little seemed to come out. Later I learned that it required big quantities of ore and many complicated processes—done here and elsewhere—finally to isolate the negligible bit of precious uranium from the mixture of U-235 and U-238.
There are several methods of extracting the uranium. The Tennessee Eastman plant, known as Y-12, and comprising 270 buildings, uses the electro-magnetic process. Carbide and Carbon Corporation, K-25, occupying 71 buildings, obtains the same results by gaseous diffusion. S-50, operated by the Fercleve Corporation, employs the thermal-diffusion method. All these processes have been tested, and they all work. X-10, the Clinton Laboratories, formerly connected with DuPont, are doing research on plutonium, the main plant being at the Hanford Engineering Works in the State of Washington.
Three shifts keep the plants in operation day and night, and thousands of workers and technicians from Oak Ridge and its environs check in past the maze of fences, guards and more guards. Few of them ever see the finished product, and before the Bomb struck Hiroshima they hadn’t the least inkling of what was going on behind the thick walls that separated them from the radioactive uranium. Charlie Chaplin’s awe at entering the super-modern factory in “Modern Times” was nothing compared to what the Project workers first experienced in the plants. Charlie at least saw what he was making. The Ridgers still can’t see, but they know. There’s a purpose to all the button-pushing and fantastic equipment.
“I still don’t see how a gadget can take the place of a brain,” a worker said philosophically,” but leave it to them long-hairs to think things out.”
Three years ago the Manhattan Engineer District was a plan. The Black Oak Ridge country was chosen as one of the three atomic sites for its electric power, supplied by the TVA, its inaccessibility to enemy attacks, its water supply and the then uncritical labor area. The small farmers who inhabited these ridges were moved off the land with proper remuneration and dispatch. They could not be told why.
The bulldozers moved in, and with them arrived the jeeps and automobiles. The army, having the scientists in mind at first, built several hundred permanent houses and put fireplaces in them. Often the fireplaces were there before the walls were up. Then the plans were changed, and more houses were built. More workers arrived, and the need for shelter became acute. They started building barracks, hutments and the TVA came to the rescue with those square, matchbox demountables. And finally the trailers were brought in and set up below the ridges.
It was not an inspired migration. Many were lured by high wages others by promises of comfortable living. The scientists, those who had worked with the Project in other parts of the country, knew the reasons. The GI’s came because they were told to come. One woman said it was a good way of getting rid of her husband. “I knew he couldn’t follow me past the gates.”
They waded in the red-clay mud, and some walked about barefoot for fear of losing their shoes. The clay was hard and they had to water it at night in order to dig it next morning. People knew there was no gold to be found in the Cumberlands, and therefore it is the more remarkable that they worked with such fervor and pioneering zeal.
When Oak Ridge had 15,000 inhabitants, there was only one grocery store in town. Businessmen, unable to find out the potential number of customers or clients, were reluctant to move in. One five-and-ten concern asked for a contract barring competitors for a period of ten years. Slowly, warily, entrepreneurs set up shop in Oak Ridge. And they’ve done quite well by themselves, so well, in fact, that the OPA has had to step in on occasion to curb some enterprising souls.
Roads were laid out, buses started to operate, taxi-cabs were brought in. Neon lights went up on business establishments, and some people started calling Oak Ridge “home.” They cut weeds and planted Victory gardens and raised pets. People started having children, many children. “Pretty near all there was to do in those days,” a father said.
Today the city has its Boosters and Junior Chamber of Commerce, and a Women’s Club. It has beauticians one hair stylist advertises as being connected “formerly [with] Helena Rubinstein’s Fifth Avenue, NY.” There are tennis and handball courts. A symphony orchestra, composed of Project employees, is led by a prominent scientist. There are seven recreation halls into which people can wander and join a bridge game or participate in community singing. There are several movie houses and a Little Theater and a high school. But Oak Ridge still has no sidewalks. “When I first came here,” a youngster of ten said, “I missed sidewalks most. Now I don’t care.”
Some people point with pride. Others point at “Colored Hutments,” where living facilities are primitive, to say the least, though comparable to some of the housing for white workmen. Negro children are not permitted to go to school with whites they journey to nearby Clinton for their education. And for that reason many Negroes did not bring their children to Oak Ridge. Plans are now being made to provide school facilities for the Negroes as soon as a sufficient number of children are enrolled to justify it. They have one recreation hall, the Atom Club, and one movie house, which is located 12 miles from their hutments, in the K-25 area.
The GI scientists point to the great discrepancy in salaries.
No one points at the food served at Oak Ridge cafeterias, and that’s as it should be.
One of the town’s most interesting institutions is the Oak Ridge Hospital. It is an experiment in what its brilliant young director, a lieutenant colonel, says “has absolutely no relationship with socialized medicine.” He calls it “The Group Insurance Plan.” Nevertheless, I advise Dr. Fishbein not to be lulled by the colonel’s reassurances. The plan works something like this: each family head pays $4 a month, and the medical services include all his children below the age of 19. Doctors make private calls, but the fees go to the hospital. There is no private practice. The hospital has 300 beds and can handle 1,500 in-patients monthly. Five psychiatrists are attached to the institution, and their emphasis is on what they call group therapy. The hospital is staffed with high-caliber practitioners, many of them from the Mayo Clinic. Everybody in Oak Ridge can afford to enjoy good health.
This is the only city in the United States which has no unemployment and no reconversion problem. There are no election headaches, since the councilmen act only in an advisory capacity to the District Engineer, who is both an army officer and the mayor. Those who acquire an additional child try to move from a B-house to a C-house, and so on up to a F-house, which rents for $73 a month. And those who marry and are lucky move from their “Single” dormitories to an A-house. But no matter where they move, most of it is Cemesto (cement and asbestos rolled into sheets). And there’s a feeling of temporariness about the whole place. The one bank in town is bulging with assets, for which the state of Tennessee is not ungrateful. The inhabitants of Knoxville have learned to tolerate the outsiders, if not for their ways, for the revenue they’ve brought.
There is a tendency among many to talk about the “past” and about “the spirit” they had “in those days.” A few have left for the other “home,” but most are waiting. The Bomb that pulverized Hiroshima was the reason for their existence. The world was shaken to its very foundations. Now the people who’ve unchained this fury are thinking of its implications not only for their immediate tomorrow, but for the world’s also.