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The Secret City that Changed the World

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2023 | Uncategorized | No Comments

By Joseph Rose

Nestled out in the middle of nowhere in East Tennessee, there is a place you have probably visited, though you may not know the full story behind it. That city is Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Once, it was a secret city and it changed the world.

During the early years of the twentieth century, the land that would eventually become Oak Ridge was nothing remarkable. There were hills and valleys and trees, but nothing that would call attention to itself. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and all of that would change. In 1942, General Leslie Groves made the decision on behalf of the government to build a specialized research facility in this somewhat remote, utterly mundane part of Tennessee. One so secret that not even the people who worked there knew exactly what they were doing – or why.

Two days before making that historic decision, General Groves had been placed in charge of the Manhattan Project. It was his job to develop the first atomic bomb.

Groves knew that he couldn’t risk the enemy learning of the Manhattan Project, so security was paramount. As such, he and his advisors considered many different locations to conduct their research. But in the end, they settled on Oak Ridge. It was the only place that had everything they needed. There was more than enough land, with plenty of water and electricity to power all the necessary equipment, thanks to the hydroelectric plants at Norris Dam. The location was remote, far away from the coast where it might be attacked by German or Japanese bombers. The population of East Tennessee was small enough that relatively few families would be displaced from their homes as a result of eminent domain, and yet Knoxville had more than enough people to recruit to work there. After removing nearly 3,000 original residents with minimal compensation and very short time frames, Groves had the perfect spot. Now he could get to work.

Determined to maximize both security and secrecy, Groves didn’t just create a single building to house this research. Instead, he built an entire city: the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The United States government purchased fifty-nine thousand acres of land at roughly $48 an acre, and the Army Corps of Engineers got to work. In short order, entire families from Knoxville and beyond flooded in to live and work there, intrigued by the promise of new jobs. Soon, Oak Ridge was the fifth largest city in Tennessee. But those people were forbidden to speak about their work. Even to others within Oak Ridge itself. At the time, there was a fear that saying the wrong things to the wrong people could lead to vital intelligence making its way back to the enemy. So the people of Oak Ridge promised to keep their work secret from each other.

But even the workers didn’t know exactly what they were working on or what they were contributing to. Only the best scientists and brightest minds in Oak Ridge had any real conception that they were helping to research, develop, and build the world’s first atomic bomb. The rest were left in the dark. Men and women both worked day after day, performing simple, repetitive jobs without understanding the full picture. As far as they were concerned, they were just turning dials and flipping switches day in and day out. But all of them were assured that their efforts would help win the war.

It wasn’t until the bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki after it, that the secret was revealed. Shortly after the bombings, a local newspaper ran this headline, “Oak Ridge Attacks Japan”.

Though the community was relatively small, and much of the work done there seemed tedious and unimportant, the men and women of Oak Ridge helped end a war. And the world was changed forever in the process.

Joseph Rose is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to East Tennessee’s Mountain Views. Joseph can be reached at pyrose17@gmail.com.

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