This weekend, Oak Ridge, Tennessee celebrated its 12th Annual Secret City Festival. Though not quite on the scale of Bonnaroo, Kix Brooks and Eddie Money are the headliners this year, the history behind the town is what makes this award winner such an interesting event. In the 1940’s Oak Ridge was built as a secret city for developing the atomic bomb.
According to an exhibit at Oak Ridge’s American Museum of Science & Energy, the US government gave birth to the town in 1942. This was part of the infamous Manhattan Project. Hanford, Washington and Los Alamos, New Mexico were also part of the secret city building. The US Army Corps of Engineers visited Eastern Tennessee and grabbed 59,000 acres for the project. Given two weeks to move out, a thousand families had to find new places to live.
The area was chosen for some key reasons. The climate was amenable to work being done year-round. There were dams nearby that would supply electricity. The long valleys flanked by ridges running parallel would provide needed shelter from spying. It was also chosen because those protective ridges, in case of a plant explosion, would prevent firecracker-like spreading.
The town grew quickly. The original population estimate was 13,000. Four years later, there were 10,000 houses, 90 dormitories and 5,000 barracks, huts and trailers for 16,000 citizens. The city silently boasted the country’s ninth-biggest transit system, nine schools, 12 shopping plazas and two chapels. At that time, it was named the Clinton Engineer Works. When nosy neighbors from Knoxville came knocking, they were told that the project was a construction operation for returning officers who would be retiring after the war.
The population grew to 75,000, despite not being found on any maps. Visitors were required to enter through security gates. Most of the residents had no idea what exactly they were doing there. While they harvested enriched uranium, Hanford produced the needed plutonium and Los Alamos assembled the bombs. It was not until after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 that they found out.
Oak Ridge’s New Hope Center has an exhibit detailing the Y-12 atomic plant. That is where workers separated the U-235 from the ordinary uranium. The city’s historian, Bill Wilcox, was a newly graduated chemist when he first arrived in the early 40’s. Now 88 years old, when he was told what material he would be working with, he was also warned not to ever say the word uranium until after the war was over. According to Wilcox, the U-235, a pretty green-blue powder, was packaged carefully and placed into a briefcase that was handcuffed to the wrist of a civilian-dressed lieutenant. Escorted by armed men, he would take a train to Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Though the Secret City Festival is a great way for locals to celebrate their decidedly unusual heritage, it is also an opportunity for history and World War II buffs to see firsthand a town that played a major role. There are museums, replicas and even original buildings to peruse and tour. Online, there is a collection of rare photographs taken in the town from its early days through the 1960’s. The photos reveal an unusual life, filled with bulletin boards and security gates. No longer a Secret City, Oak Ridge, Tennessee is an intriguing glimpse into a nation’s not-too-distant past.
Opinion By Stacy Lamy