Oak Ridge, Tennessee
I worked in Oak Ridge for a short time but it has had a very lasting impression on my career. I still maintain close links to those I met there and continually find them to be a excellent resource for professional advice. Many have remained personal friends over the years.
My Grandfather, T. M. Carter, worked on the Manhattan Project here during World War II.
A World War II Secret City
Oak Ridge, a city framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was built under a cloak of great secrecy during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the city of Oak Ridge did not even exist. Instead, century-old family farms and small Appalachian communities occupied the area. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was forced to enter the war.
In an effort to bring an end to the war, three cities were chosen to be part of the top-secret “Manhattan Project” which would produce the world’s first atomic weapons. Those cities were Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was built specifically for the war effort.
In 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought 59,000 acres of rural farm land. A city and three manufacturing plants of unprecedented scope were constructed to develop a technology that ended the war. The land on which the town and plants were built met military requirements for isolation, electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam, water, labor and accessibility to nearby highways and railroads.
Scientists had learned by 1939 that uranium atoms could be split with the release of large amounts of energy. This process was called fission. Its use for military purposes was seriously discussed since development of an atomic weapon was considered vital to national security. Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressing the views of several leading scientists and explaining the potential of such a weapon.
Early in 1942, it was determined that two methods could be used to produce necessary fissionable material -- either plutonium 239 or the highly purified isotope uranium 235. Ultimately, three methods were brought to large-scale production. Oak Ridge played a major role in each of these processes. Three facilities, each identified by a code name, were built in the Oak Ridge complex, which at the time was called the Clinton Engineering Works (C.E.W.) after the nearby town of Clinton. This work was performed under the direction of the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers which had been formed in June 1942 to oversee the entire atomic weapons program.
The city, which is approximately 10 miles in length and two miles wide, is located in a valley known as Black Oak Ridge. Reaching a peak World War II population of 75,000, it became the fifth largest city in Tennessee in two and a half years.
The Manhattan District was transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on June 1, 1947. In 1949, Oak Ridge was opened to the public. Six years later, the AEC sold the government-owned houses and land to city residents. Since that time, additional homes and churches have been built. Oak Ridge was incorporated under a City Council-City Manager charter in May 1959. It currently has a population of close to 28,000 with federal offices, industrial facilities, a major medical center and approximately 800 private firms. The Oak Ridge school system has maintained a high ranking both within the state and the southeastern United States. There are many cultural activities including a symphony orchestra, civic ballet and community playhouse. A variety of recreational facilities are also available, including Melton Hill Lake and numerous parks.
Housing and Town Life
Oak Ridge was the first Manhattan Project site and became the largest of the Project communities with a population at its peak of over 75,000. The original community was designed by the architectural-engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to accommodate about 12,000 people. This suburban community design adapted the gently winding streets to the contours of the ridge, preserved trees and natural areas, provided attractive home sites, and required minimal cut and fill. Single family homes were grouped into the three neighborhoods of Pine Valley, Cedar Hill, and Elm Grove, each of which featured an elementary school and essential shopping within walking distance including a drug store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, grocery store, beauty parlor and barber shop. Homes were sited with living areas oriented toward green belts, views, and individual gardens. Five home designs designated “A” through “F” according to size (thus how the houses became known as Alphabet houses), included central heat, porches, and fireplaces. Homes were assigned according to family size or, in some instances, job importance.
Construction workers lived in 16,000 rudimentary wooden hutment and barrack spaces, 13,000 dorm rooms, and 5,000 trailers which had little room and no frills. Three thousand cemesto houses, which took two hours each to build, were completed at the rate of one every thirty minutes. Children would return home to find an entire subdivision had been built while they were at school. To save time and labor in providing housing for the thousands of newcomers, prefabricated houses, complete with cabinets, plumbing, curtains, and even some furniture, were brought in by trucks, half-a-house at a time.
House rent included heat, water, and electricity. A typical “B” house, with two bedrooms and one bath, rented for $35 a month. Coal was used for heating. Renters were not allowed to improve housing in any way – painting, planting, remodeling – without special permission. It was not until 1955 that citizens were allowed to own the property they had lived on.
Streets were laid out systematically. Main arteries were named after states, by alphabet, starting at the east end of town and working west. All side streets branching off a main artery bore the first letter of the state’s name. For example, all streets branching off New York Avenue began with the letter “N.”
The local hotel, the Guest House, served as a rest stop for many of the world’s leading scientists, industrial executives, and politicians after its opening in August 1943.
While food was scarce due to government allotments, fresh garden produce provided a welcome treat for the townspeople who could seldom find enough of the essentials, such as milk and flour. Facilities for dry cleaning and laundry were no more modern than the rest of the city, and long waits for service were not uncommon.
Grocery shopping was frustrating, as one store would attempt to serve 10,000 residents with only basic stock and undependable food shipments, since many suppliers often refused to ship orders to a city that was not on a map. Standing in long lines became second nature to Oak Ridgers, whether they were shopping or cashing pay checks.
Churches, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores, and drugstores were built and enlarged.