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History"s Highway--Oak Ridge, Tennesse, America's Secret City


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    Picture of Cautlron Girls at American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge

    Few places in the world can compete with America's Secret City, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as a history maker. Not only was history literally made here, it was achieved with a level of secrecy that could never be duplicated today.  Was the result good or evil? That is still being debated. What is undeniable is that it changed the course of warfare forever. Man had unleashed a power that if misused could destroy the entire planet.

    One of the "Flattop Houses" set up in Oak Ridge at American Museum of Science and Energy

    I was thrilled when I got the chance to actually enter the site and visit not only the American Museum of Science and Energy, where our tour started but some of the actual buildings used in the Manhattan Project. One of the original houses is on exhibit at the museum. It is one of the flattop house used by families brought here to work on the project. These compact homes complete with furniture and accessories were hauled in on trucks and assembled in about 20 minutes.  Our guide, Willis Baker, was a knowledgeable septuagenarian who grew up in the area and whose parents lived the history. He told about cases of workers leaving for work in the morning and not being able to find their homes when they returned that evening because entire streets of businesses and houses had been assembled during the few hours they were away.

    Museum lobby with replica of guard house used to restrict entry to secret city

    I could have spent days in just the museum and come out with the equivalent of a PHD in not only nuclear physics but post WWI and WWII history it is so extensive. One important item on display is a simple letter that changed the course of history forever. The letter is a  typewritten one dated August 2, 1939 addressed to President Roosevelt and signed by Albert Einstein; it was the most famous letter the genius ever wrote.

    Copy of famous Einstein Letter

    The letter, telling the president that Germany might be in the process of developing a bomb unlike any destructive device ever before created. Einstein based that on the fact that Germany had increased mining of uranium. Because of what was going on in the world, President Roosevelt didn't see the letter until October 11, 1939 about a month after Germany invaded Poland.

    The museum has a great exhibit of scientist who contributed to our nuclear knowledge.

    Seeing the reasoning was sound, Roosevelt appointed a committee which ironically did not hold its first meeting until Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The exhibit states, "Suddenly the atomic bomb went from theory to necessity with no one knowing how, or if, such a device would work."

    Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, decided on this rural valley in eastern Tennessee which now had ample power supply thanks to the new TVA dam on Norris Lake, as the location for the project and on October of 1943, the Corps of Engineers began acquiring property for the development of the Secret City.

    Museum map showing how Oak Ridge still fits into national nuclear program

    The entire city of Oak Ridge was built from scratch in just 30 months. Compartmentalization was set up so that workers had no idea what they were building.  The museum is filled with exhibits showing scale models of all of the project buildings, artifacts ranging from uniforms and badges to actual machinery used in the creation of the world's first atomic bomb.

    Exhibit of Ed Wescott Oak Ridge photos at Children's Museum & copy of newspaper 1945

    On the second floor there are models of other bombs and many interactive exhibits that will appeal to younger visitors. We can thank a man named, Ed Westcott, for the photographs of Oak Ridge we see today. He was the only one allowed to photograph workers at the sites for government records.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory located there is still the site of some high level nuclear work so there are certain places you cannot photograph or enter. To enter or tour, anyone over 18 will need a driver's license from a state that meets government regulations or have a valid passport. Foreign visitors are regulated even more strictly. Bus tours are limited to adults and children over 10.

    We went by bus to our next stop, Y12, the New Hope Center, where we got an overview of the project. This is where the Calutron Girls,(seen in the header photo) mostly young women high school graduates manned the calutron control panels at Y-12. This functions as the visitor's center for the project but is still in use by the government.

    Bethel Valley Church

    The bus made a short stop at the Bethel Valley Church and graveyard. We drove by the George Jones Memorial Baptist Church these are some of the very few remaining structure left from the original communities.

    Next stop was my favorite part of the tour. We went inside the X10 Graphite Reactor where the elements needed to produce an atomic reaction were extracted from raw uranium. The reactor is "manned" by three mannequins representing the men placing small slugs of raw uranium into the small holes of the reactor.

    Heart of the complex, the nuclear reactor

    Upstairs in the control room was where the results were tallied and recorded. Remember this was before computers so all of this exacting work was done by hand. The log book on display is open to November 4, 1943 at 5a.m., the date when the reactor first reached critical mass, the minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. I was standing in the world's first continually operating nuclear reactor. Our guide assured us we were safe as all raidoactive material was buried deep underground. Oh Boy!

    Another little known fact, the first nuclear produced electricity happened here in August 1948. The small steam engine displayed there was part of an experiment where they produced electricity by means of nuclear fission. It was only enough to light a small flashlight however.

    K25, the former uranium production facility, was then the largest building in the world. It has since been torn down but we visited the site. The distance between each facility was usually about seven miles. This was another deliberate method of keeping things secret. It worked. Workers only learned what they had built after "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima followed shortly by "Fatman" dropped on Nagasaki.

    Oak Ridge exhibit in Children;s Museum

    For younger visitors there is an excellent children's museum in Oak Ridge with exhibits explaining the Manhattan Project in simpler terms. There is much there that will interest an adult as well including an exhibit of Ed Wescott's photos of the project.

    In the present city of Oak Ridge, there is much dating back to the days of the Manhattan Project. As you drive through the city you can spot some of the original homes; many have been remodeled and enlarged. The Alexander Inn, which was the complex's hotel where important visitors would have stayed, is now an assisted living facility. The Chapel on the Hill that once served as a place of worship for all denominations is still in use. We ran into a kind gentleman, Dr. Richard Raridon, who volunteers at the chapel and told us a little about its history. He let us in to see the interior. There is Jackson Square where residents celebrated the war's end; it is still is home to shops and restaurants.

    Former Alexander Inn

    The scope of the project is reminiscent of a science fiction novel except this was—is--real. Oak Ridge shaped and continues to shape the destiny of our world.


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    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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