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.
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.
When I think of Oak Ridge and the Project, I see black-and-white images of women on stools monitoring knobs. These iconic photos capture the thousands of women involved in the project at Oak Ridge. Y-12 was one of the Manhattan Project uranium enrichment plants and continues to serve in a similar function as a Department of Energy National Security Complex.
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.
X-10 Graphite Reactor
From the outside, X-10 is a nondescript building. In fact, we weren’t permitted to take any photos of the exterior, with barbed wire fenced in buildings nearby. Once inside X-10, the space provided an authentic look at the first permanent nuclear reactor after Enrico Fermi’s Chicago Pile. The space is remarkably well preserved, even though plutonium production ended in 1963.
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.”
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.
During our visit to Oak Ridge, the demolition of K-25 was nearly complete. The tour stopped at the K-25 overlook -- a beautiful vista which permitted a glance at the former uranium production facility.
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.
Although we scheduled our trip around the DOE Sites Public Bus Tour, we learned that the story about Oak Ridge was just as compelling in areas outside the modern-day reservation. We ate in Jackson Square, the historic townsite of Oak Ridge. We instantly recognized other Oak Ridge landmarks of note within the vicinity, including the Chapel-on-the-Hill and the Guest House (Alexander Inn).
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 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.
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.