There is a lot happening in today’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Also known as The Secret City, new museums and previously restricted grounds are now open to the public to tell the elusive Manhattan Project story. This is a can’t miss location for your small town destination and let me tell you why. But first, here is a little background on Oak Ridge, courtesy of The Oak Ridge History Museum.

Oak Ridge is famous for supplying the uranium 235 for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Along with Fat Man these two atomic bombs helped end World War II, the deadliest war in the history of the world. What you may not know is that an entire city was created in the making of this bomb, just like Boulder City, NV was created to build the Hoover Dam, which you can read about here. It took 75,000 people at the height of operations in 1943, to create what was needed for the war effort. The most amazing part is that this monumental effort was all this was done in complete secrecy; a feat that couldn’t be done in today’s social media world. The project went under the codename “The Manhattan Project.”

How Did the Project Start?

The early days of construction were plagued with East Tennessee Mud. Testimonies account of mud ankle deep or higher. Photo Credit: Ed Westcott- The Manhattan Project Photographer

When it was clear that the U.S. was going to enter the war, it was also evident that that the U.S. needed to be the first to create an atomic bomb. It was thought that our enemies were already working on doing the same. President Roosevelt set out to find a leader for the enormous task of managing the Manhattan Project. He chose General Leslie Groves who oversaw the building of the Pentagon.

The first order of business was to choose a site to begin round the clock work building the weapons needed to protect the U.S. They chose 59,000 acres in East Tennessee that they surrounded with seven gates protected by military. Three gate houses still exist today which were created in 1948, when the seven original gates were removed and the public allowed access to the city for the first time.

There are several theories as to why Oak Ridge, Tennessee was chosen. But in a nutshell, its location is inland far enough that it would not be easily found if there were an invasion. The location also has enough valleys to give some protection if something were to go wrong. Yes, as in the uranium reacts. It’s a very crude and bleak way to look at the situation, but you have to remember, this was during war time.

Construction Begins

In order to beat the Germans, a massive effort began to start building the monumental facilities of Y-12 and K-25. Their respective purposes were as follows: “The Y-12 facility began operating in November 1943, separating uranium-235 from natural uranium, which is 99.3% uranium-238, by using calutrons to perform electromagnetic isotope separation. This was done 24 hours a day by women known as “Calutron Girls.” These women were consistently moving the knobs on the calutron control panels to keep the levels where they needed to be for separation. The name for the entire project location was the Clinton Engineer Works, the plants were given codenames of Y-12, K-25, X-10 and S-50. The site was also given a codename of “Site X.”

Y-12 separated the uranium-235 for Little Boy, the nuclear weapon that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. K-25 produced enriched uranium using gaseous diffusion. However, K-25 did not begin operating until March 1945, its main role was sending its product of enriched uranium to Y-12’s Beta Calutrons. This priority was due to the high demand to obtain enough uranium 235 for Little Boy. This became pressing in early summer of 1945.”(Y-12 National Security Complex)

The Famous “Calutron Girls” operating calutron control panels at Y-12

At the time the K-25 plant was the world’s largest industrial building. Stretching over a mile in length, K-25 employed over 25,000 people. Try to imagine what it would take to build these facilities. Consider how much manpower it would take, and what would be needed to take care of this round the clock workforce. 

Housing Built Fast

To accomplish building these huge research facilities, large amounts of housing were to be built immediately. This new housing was for workers putting the nuts and bolts of this project together. They needed electricity, sewage, masonry, woodworking, everything you can possibly think of to build not just buildings, but a small city right away. Workers had to have on site accommodations to work long hours in a race-like atmosphere for completion.

Aerial View of Y-12

In addition, there was housing for military, engineers, and scientists from all over the world working on the innovations of the Manhattan Project. They lived in housing called “Hutments;” flat top housing that could be brought in and assembled quickly.

They also had what was called “Alphabet” housing which literally is what it sounds like. The A, B, C, and so on, housing was classified by the size of the home, and the size of your family, basically determined the size of your house. You can still see these housing arrangements in today’s Oak Ridge. Click here to see blueprints and specifics of the significance of this housing project.

Why it Became Known as the Secret City 

You probably have caught on that The Secret City got its name because this was kept secret from our war time enemies. But it also receives its name from the workers lifestyle during this time.  

Workers were not allowed to talk about anything that they witnessed while on the worksite. In many cases, they were not even told what they were working on. Again, this was war time and having a job was better than not having a job.

Propaganda

There was propaganda posted everywhere reminding workers not to talk about anything they witnessed while on the worksite. They were told it was their patriotic duty to be silent. Signs literally depicting soldiers dying as a result of loose talk were a common sight. The entire city was surrounded by gate house checkpoints guarded by military and local law enforcement. No one was allowed in without a badge (three 1948 gate houses are still standing for you to see today).  All of this created what we now know as The Secret City. A city that no one knew what was happening, even the people who worked there.

In reality, all these workers were enriching uranium 235, and testing what was back then, “new science,” which eventually ended the war. There were also two other “secret cities” in the U.S. connected to the same mission of the Manhattan Project; Los Alamos, New Mexico and Hanford, Washington.

A Pleasant Place to Live During the War

But life in Oak Ridge was not all bad. In fact, testimony from residents during the war years recall many benefits of living there. While the rest of the country was dealing with rationing food, Oak Ridge had the very best the country could get its hands on shipped by train or trucks. The communities that were formed in Oak Ridge had their own grocery stores, salons, recreational halls, and schools systems.

Over time, all the familiar civic organizations and clubs were formed. Even performing arts groups like The Oak Ridge Playhouse was formed in 1943, and still exists today. They also enjoyed church services at The Chapel on the Hill. Now it is a historical landmark still in use today.

Photo Entitled: “The Crowd Goes Wild” by: Ed Westcott, known as-The Manhattan Project Photographer. You can see exhibits dedicated to Ed Westcott at the American Museum of Science and Energy, the K-25 History Center, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, and at the Oak Ridge History Museum

There were several biproducts of this monumental building and scientific effort. This included erecting a city that by the end of the war, residents needed to decide whether they would stay or go. The result, the city of Oak Ridge incorporated as a city in 1960, and is now an innovation center for the United States.

Oak Ridge Today- AMSE, K-25 Site, and The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

Today, Oak Ridge is quite literally one of the foremost innovation, technology, and science centers in the world. While you can still visit the gatehouses, they are no longer guarded checkpoints. Once classified information has now been declassified to be used to tell Oak Ridge’s incredible story. It is also the storehouse for all the enriched uranium in the country not in nuclear weapons, research reactors or the US Navy’s ships and submarines, and serves as a nuclear weapons disassembly site. Innovations such as isotopes that treat cancer, 3D-Printing, some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, and even the technology used for your touch screen on your iPhone, are all results of the research coming out of Oak Ridge. All these current scientific breakthroughs were made possible by what began as war time discoveries. 

AMSE

My Town Founder Kristy Burns, discovering what is her element? She’s a Selenium!

Oak Ridge is investing in preserving its history, telling their story, and explaining Oak Ridge’s critical role in ongoing innovation for Science and Energy.

At the newly invested American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE- a Smithsonian Affiliate), you will get immersive learning to understand how the science from war time has developed into today’s technologies. It’s the largest materials science lab in the U.S. for figuring out how things work and why.

It’s pretty amazing to see and touch the technology coming out of the small town of Oak Ridge. At AMSE, you can see an entirely 3-D printed Jeep, learn about energy with hair-raising electromagnetic displays, learn the science of super computers, and even go into Virtual Reality. The displays are fun and interactive to explain to anyone (especially someone like me who is not science savvy), how things like radioactive isotopes work, while having a ton of fun in the process!

The K-25 History Center (Part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park)

When you visit the K-25 History Center you will be greeted like a worker at the site. You must get your badge for entry, and this will serve as your key for information.

Receiving Security Clearance at the K-25 History Center

To begin, you will walk through one of the original K-25 entry portals, and then you will be briefed by a virtual Military Officer of the War Department on what you are about to see. After being briefed, you can take your time going through the informational and hands-on displays of what the workers did to create the enriched uranium at the K-25 plant.

Next, you will walk through exhibits of over 250 artifacts continuing the story, where you can start to understand the daily lives of the workers who helped the U.S. win World War II. The combination of real artifacts and your initial entry card, makes this an immersive and memorable experience.

The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (Part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park)

Preserving the rich history of the Manhattan Project while encompassing “Flat Top” housing units used in The Secret City during WWII, creating themed jungle and doll house play rooms, and creating spaces for art and music, are a few discoveries in the wonderful exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (CMOR). What I loved most about this museum was their hands-on, easy to understand exhibits for kids, and their historical timeline of the Manhattan Project. There is so much information surrounding the Manhattan Project. The way the displays tell the story here at CMOR, helps you imagine being there.

They are also part of the Manhattan Project Historical Park. There are great outdoor programs (such as hiking, biking, kayaking and Jr. Ranger) for you to take part in. “The mission of CMOR is to provide fun and diverse educational programs and exhibits emphasizing play and hands-on learning for all ages in arts, science, history, culture, and healthy living, while collecting and preserving objects in a historic Manhattan Project Community.”

So many great options

Each museum in Oak Ridge has a special significance to its location and specific emphasis. But, if you don’t have time to hit more than one museum, you can get the history to understand the story at any of the above mentioned. It just depends on how you would like to additionally spend your time.

Whether you get hands-on Science with an emphasis on today’s technology at AMSE or learn the specific historical site significance of K-25, go through a traditional historical timeline of Oak Ridge’s construction through current day at The Oak Ridge History Museum, or if you have smaller children- learn the Oak Ridge story while letting them play at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. No matter if you choose one or all, it will be a great experience to remember!

The Unique, Interesting, Yours of Oak Ridge 

Oak Ridge has so much to offer in the way of unique experiences. Because you have to remember, the entire city is laid out across the original war time construction. While exploring, here are some can’t miss small town places in Oak Ridge.

Places that are part of the original historical landscape, or now have businesses in the historical framework.  Click here for full list of each significant stop of the Manhattan Project within the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Located In Or Near Historic Jackson Square: 

Historic Jackson Square was the center of commerce and social activities in Oak Ridge for off-duty residents. Jackson Square is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and continues to serve as a place to eat, shop, and socialize. Here are a few Favorite Finds.

Dean’s Restaurant and Bakery

Serving upscale soulful comfort foods, Dean’s Restaurant and Bakery is keeping the Jackson Square spirit alive with its comfy atmosphere, and creating an ongoing meeting spot for locals. Top notch food for the weary traveler is what My Town received; pot roast with demi-glazed carrots and cheesy broccoli casserole.

Big Ed’s Pizza 

Because the city of Oak Ridge was constructed during WWII, Big Ed’s is an important landmark. Not just for its delicious pizza, but because it’s located in one of the last “original” community buildings constructed during war time (It’s the Oak Ridge Service Drug Store).

Big Ed’s has been in continuous operation since opening at its current location by “Big Ed” Neusel and his wife, “Ginger,” in February of 1970. All sauces and dough are made in-house with Big Ed’s recipes. They even make their own sausage, spice blends and shred special cheese shipped from Wisconsin daily!

Razzleberry’s Café and Market

Have you ever had lavender ice cream? My Town never had the pleasure until visiting a fun location in Oak Ridge. Razzelberrys is a family-owned and operated café and specialty market. They are known for their homemade ice cream made in their “ice cream lab” of delicious flavors. A quirky and unique stop during your Oak Ridge exploring.

Additional Small Town Finds and Installations for Ongoing Peace and Commemoration

The Other One Diner & Dive

I had been craving a great burger for a while. What an awesome surprise when I learned that’s how I was starting my time in Oak Ridge! Connecting you with what small towns have to offer is my passion, and food is a big part of that!

Here at The Other One Diner & Dive, I was blown away by their Smokey and the Bacon Bit Burger. Smoked Cheddar with their BBQ, Ranch, Onion Rings, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, and Pickle. Burgers are made the way the chef wants- with just a little pink. It’s one of those burgers that takes simple to the next level. That’s why this local, diner-style establishment is so highly recommended!

The International Friendship Bell 

The beautiful story of the International Friendship Bell started when a married couple of Oak Ridge visited Japan in 1987. Because of the scared history between the U.S. and Japan, the couple recognized the value of the Bonsho Bell, which they learned about on their trip as a symbol of peace. Upon their return they launched a campaign to create a 8,300 pound peace bell, and what would later be known as the Peace Pavilion. The Bell depicts peaceful and significant scenes of Tennessee and Japan as well as the tragedies of War.

International Friendship Bell and Peace Pavilion

The greatest significance of this project is the collaboration between Oak Ridge and Japanese citizens and foundations, to raise the money and take part in its construction and dedication. For example, the design of the bell was made in Oak Ridge, but the bell was cast in Kyoto, Japan.

Every part of the Peace Pavilion has significance. The entire pavilion represents a globe, with notches that represent our imperfections. The blue arches of the designed concrete represent the radiating sound of peace rippling out. The bell points due north toward Japan, and even the I-beams symbolize the strength of two nations coming together. It’s a beautiful symbol of everlasting peace and serves as a constant reminder of the two nations reconciliation.

The Secret City Commemorative Walk 

Put together by citizens, civic organizations, businesses, and contributors to science of Oak Ridge, the Secret City Commemorative Walk takes you through each step of the Manhattan Project in chronological order. You can take your time learning the history from ten bronze plaques, describing Oak Ridge’s role in the war. You also learn of the people who lived in Oak Ridge during its time of isolation. This is great way to learn the history step by step, while enjoying your time outside in a park environment (Bissell Park).

Oak Ridge Location on the Clinch River

With all this amazing history to keep you busy, Oak Ridge has even more to offer visitors with activities in and around the Clinch River. Known for Fly Fishing, and Collegiate Rowing, anglers and rowers come from all over the country for the perfect flat water river. Make sure to checkout the waterfront trails of Melton Lake Greenway!

Calhoun’s on the Clinch River

While you’re out exploring the beauty of the Clinch River, stop in at Calhoun’s. Serving Southern specialties Riverside. After winning the official title of “Best Ribs in America” in 1983, Calhoun’s continues to serve “The Taste of Tennessee” to all its visitors.

Where to Stay: 

Holiday Inn Express

Holiday Inn Express Oak Ridge

Honestly, it has been a long time since My Town had stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. I have to say I was completely delighted with my experience. The staff at the Oak Ridge Holiday Inn Express were very attentive and friendly. Given the current state of the country still in the COVID-19 crisis, the Holiday Inn Express Oak Ridge did an incredible job with extra cleaning in the rooms, and making me feel safe.

I was also impressed with the design of the rooms, common areas, and little upgrades. This included Keurig’s in the rooms and J.R. Watkins Soaps in the bathrooms. Their wonderful staff also did a great job of making me feel like I was not missing out. They still had hot breakfast items being served by their staff (something many other hotels I have stayed in recently are not currently doing; it’s been pre-packaged items only!). A pleasant experience with a brand I had not explored in a while. I’m giving a big high-five to their local dedicated team.

A Quick Mention and Final Thoughts

I would be remiss not to mention TownePlace Suites Oak Ridge. While I didn’t stay there, I have another reason for its mention, and that is Oak Ridge Historian Ray Smith. I had the pleasure of spending time with Ray while in Oak Ridge. I learned not only that he is a very well-known historian featured on several news channels and on PBS, but he is also an incredible photographer. His beautiful work can be viewed all over TownePlace Suites. You can learn more about Oak Ridge and Ray Smith by listening to My Town Today’s Podcast.

Of all the small town places My Town has visited, Oak Ridge is a place that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Its entire existence is due to the implementation of the Manhattan Project, and tells a story that no one else can. In addition to its uniqueness, Oak Ridge, still maintains a historical small town feel in many of its shops and eateries that are a hallmark of small town culture. Visiting Oak Ridge, you will learn the real story of one of the most important events in U. S. history, and get a glimpse into our future that is being created right here in this small town.

A Note From My Town and Oak Ridge Photo Gallery

We hope you enjoyed this article on Oak Ridge, TN! My Town visits are based on exploring and discovery as a first-time visitor, and we certainly never want to leave anyone out of our articles. Missed seeing your business, service, or experience offered in your town? Contact My Town to see how we can promote your unique offerings on Social, in Newsletters, on our Podcast, and on our Website.

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My Town CEO, Kristy Burns in Fayettville, WV
My name is Kristy Burns (@mytowntoday). I am a travel writer, influencer, and founder of the platform My Town Today. As a lover of small towns, travel junkie, and small town foodie, I work with small towns to showcase their unique attributes, experiences, and businesses to the My Town website and social media audience to tell their unique stories. Click Here for Full Bio.

*Disclaimer* Traveling small towns is my passion- but I also have to make a living to continue fueling my passion, so I am required to let you know that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases- thanks for supporting my livelihood, and understanding why the ads are her