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Entrance to K-25, an uranium enrichment facility, 1945.

Birthplace of the Atomic Bomb

Top Secret City: Oak Ridge

The “Little Boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, was made with uranium-235 from Oak Ridge.

Here is a collection of historical photos from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town established by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 on an isolated farm. It was a secret location that became one of the most significant sites of the Manhattan Project.

Thousands of people who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during the 1940’s had no idea what they were actually doing every day, performing their tasks as directed without asking questions, surrounded by constant reminders that they needed to keep their traps shut or else. It wasn’t until the United States bombed Hiroshima in 1945 that they learned they were processing uranium as part of The Manhattan Project, many of them exposed to radiation for years.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, the area that would become Oak Ridge was 59,000 acres of century-old farmlands and rural communities. But in 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased the land that would become the first and largest of the three?Manhattan Project?sites. But just two and a half years after Oak Ridge was founded in 1942, the city sky-rocketed to a population of 75,000, making it the fifth-largest city in Tennessee and the largest of the three Manhattan Project?sites.

Top Secret City: Oak Ridge, Birthplace of the Atomic Bomb.

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at Oak Ridge, on February 14, 1946. Oppenheimer was called the “father of the atomic bomb” for his role as the head of the secret weapons laboratory of the Manhattan Project.

Everyday Life in Oak Ridge, the Secret City.

Billboards around the city. Everyday Life in Oak Ridge, the Secret City.

Photographer Ed Westcott (the only authorized photographer on the facility).

Nicknamed the Secret City, the Atomic City and the City Behind the Fence,?Oak Ridge?was developed by the government on acres of former farmland and remains a centre of nuclear research and development today. In photos from the World War II era, published by the U.S. Department of Energy?and taken by Oak Ridge?s only authorized photographer Ed Westcott, we see the many signs reminding residents that their discretion was paramount, even if they didn?t exactly know what they were keeping secret.

Post office at Christmas time, 1944.

Childrens Club at the Midtown Recreation Hall in Oak Ridge, on January 6, 1945.

Welding at the K-25 facility in Oak Ridge, in February of 1945. At the height of production, nearly 100,000 workers were employed by the government in the secret city.

Starting in 1942, the U.S. government began quietly acquiring land in Eastern Tennessee for the Manhattan Project?the secret World War II program that developed the atomic bomb. The government needed land to build massive facilities to refine and develop nuclear materials for these new weapons, without attracting the attention of enemy spies. The result was a secret town named Oak Ridge that housed tens of thousands of workers and their families. The entire town and facility were fenced in, with armed guards posted at all entries. Workers were sworn to secrecy and only informed of the specific tasks they needed to perform. Most were unaware of the exact nature of their final product until the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945. Photographer Ed Westcott (the only authorized photographer on the facility) took many photos of Oak Ridge during the war years and afterwards, capturing construction, scientific experiments, military manoeuvres, and everyday life in a 1940’s company town (where the company happens to be the U.S. government).

The main control room at the K-25 uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge.

A young entrepreneur during the days of the Manhattan Project, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Temporary Housing (Hutments) fill the formerly empty valleys of Oak Ridge in 1945. The sudden growth of the military’s facilities caused the local population to grow from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945.

Chosen for its remote locale, the entire city had to be built almost from scratch to handle the influx of employee/residents, which ballooned within 3 years. Very few of the employees, most of whom were women, knew what was being built at the time, or exactly what they were getting into.

Delightful Oak Ridge was, in a lot of ways, just like any quaint southern city?there was an abundance of leisure activities like swimming, a library, grocery stores, an orchestra, and swing dancing. Besides the required badges,?guard towers and giant perimeter fence, it was practically a wartime Mayberry. Everyone was quarantined, and their duties left the actual project a mystery, but who would want to leave when they have everything right where they?re at, and who were they to question the government who had given them such a comfortable home and stable employment? It wasn’t until Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Japan that the fine citizens of Oak Ridge realized what they had become a part of.

A caultron “racetrack” uranium refinery at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Manhattan Project. The light-coloured bars along the top are solid silver.

Calutron operators at their panels, in the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. The calutrons were used to refine uranium ore into fissile material. During the Manhattan Project effort to construct an atomic explosive, workers toiled in secrecy, with no idea to what end their labours were directed. Gladys Owens, the woman seated in the foreground, did not realize what she had been doing until seeing this photo in a public tour of the facility fifty years later.

Lie detection tests were administered as part of security screening.

Military Police man Elza Gate in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1945.

To accommodate the massive influx of workers, the government had to build the Secret City from scratch. Engineers decided to create three neighbourhoods, each with an elementary school and essential shopping within walking distance like a drug store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, grocery store, beauty parlour, and barbershop.

To save money on time and labour, an Indiana factory manufactured 3,000 prefabricated single-family homes for the Secret City, complete with walls, floors, cabinets, interior wiring, plumbing, and furniture. During the height of the production, one home was created every 30 minutes. Trucks hauled completed homes to the Secret City, half a house at a time.

Despite the rush of activity and population explosion, the top-secret work behind developing the first atomic bombs managed to stay a secret. A billboard erected in Oak Ridge during the war, typical of the secretive nature of the city, read, ?What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, what you leave here ? let it stay here.? The fact that the Secret City was created and worked under a cloak of secrecy is a testament to human ingenuity and efficiency.

A special travelling exhibit of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, “Your Stake in the Atom”, is housed in its own geodesic exoskeleton structure some 20 feet high and 50 feet in diameter in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1966. The exhibit featured live demos on uses of nuclear power and a set of remote controlled mechanical hands.

Ed Westcott’s Camera and Entry Pass, 1940’s.

Santa Claus, 1947.

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, then 87, recalled in 2010.

Wilcox?s experience was atypical of the thousands of 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.

Workers load uranium slugs into the X-10 Graphite Reactor’s 44 by 44 feet (13.4 m) concrete face, 1943.

A small billboard at the Oak Ridge Facility warning workers to keep silent.

In addition to its many official facilities, Oak Ridge became home to ten schools, seven theatres, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, 13 supermarkets, 17 churches, a symphony orchestra and enough prefabricated modular homes for its 75,000 residents.

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 centres 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.

In the decades that have passed since then, some workers have spoken publicly about their experience, talking about the strange clicking instruments they had to wave over all sorts of objects, including uniforms. That instrument, of course, was checking for radiation.

A billboard posted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on December 31, 1943.

While part of the city was open to the public, all visitors were required to go through military checkpoints on their way in and out. Other areas were strictly restricted. If anyone asked too many questions, they were out of a job and a home.

Exacting work: The ‘Calutron Girls’ at their control panels where electromagnetic separation was accomplished during the gathering of uranium.

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 home-owners have made changes?siding, eaves, paint?to distinguish their houses from the others, some Oak Ridge neighbourhoods 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.

Signs at Graphics Department, 1943-1944. Top Secret City: Oak Ridge, Birthplace of the Atomic Bomb.

Top Secret City: Oak Ridge, Birthplace of the Atomic Bomb.

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.

The Atom, 1945.

Line for cigarettes at Williams Drug Store, Jackson Square, 1945.

Billboards, 1943-1944.

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 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 massive amount of electricity required by the plants. The popular 12-mile roundtrip excursion runs the first and third Saturdays of summer months.

Everyday Life in Oak Ridge, the Secret City.

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.

To Man and the Atom, an exhibition in 1948. Two years after World War II ended, Oak Ridge transitioned to civilian control, but retains the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the supercomputer Titan was developed in 2012. Tours of the original facility are offered, but there?s so much interest, you have to add your name to a waiting list if you want to get in.

Dagwood Splits The Atom, 1949.

Dagwood Splits The Atom, 1949.

Two years after WWII ended, the city was relinquished to civilians. When visiting the city today, you can still see some of the old guard towers on the edges of the city, and experience one of the nation?s largest swimming pools still in operation. For $5 with valid US photo identification, you can go on a tour hosted by the American Museum of Science and Energy which includes the old graphite reactors as well as the Y-12 museum in an operational government facility with a billboard right outside that reminds employees to keep secrets a secret.