How the Manhattan Project’s Nuclear Suburb Stayed Secret via Atlas Obscura

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, once home to 75,000, went up fast and under the radar. But it was built to last, too.


When Wilcox arrived in this part of East Tennessee in 1943, soon after graduating from college with a degree in chemistry, he was among the first residents of the place that would eventually be called Oak Ridge. Wilcox lived and worked there for decades, and he later became the town’s historian. “Can’t image a better place to live,” he told an interviewer in 2013.

But Oak Ridge isn’t like most of the country’s other suburbs. The town was conceived and built by the United States government in the early 1940s as base for uranium and plutonium work, as part of the Manhattan Project. As the nuclear effort marched along, the town grew, too. By 1945, a dense suburb had taken shape, home to roughly 75,000 people. At war’s end, Oak Ridge was the fifth-largest city in the state—and all along, it was supposed to be a secret.


In 1942, under the instructions of Leslie R. Groves, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer directing the Manhattan Project, the government approached the families that lived there—some of whom had owned their farmsteads for generations—and “summarily evicted” them, says Martin Moeller Jr., senior curator at the National Building Museum and organizer of the new exhibition Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project. A few people filed lawsuits, but by and large, Moeller says, the plan worked. Moeller chalks this up to one of the ruses the organizers devised: They described the project as a “demolition range,” so any possible holdouts could be scared off with the threat of near-constant explosions. The lie was “a relatively successful one that people didn’t question,” Moeller says—after all, how could they have even imagined what the government had in mind? “That generally got people the hell out.”


At least for some. While white employees lived in relatively cushy digs, their black counterparts were more likely to be placed in structures known as “hutments,” little more than plywood frames without indoor plumbing. “Segregation was actually designed in from the start,” Moeller says.


Similar “secret cities” were built in other parts of the country, such as Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington, home to 125,000. Designers of these towns had additional tactics to obscure specifics. In Los Alamos and Hanford, sometimes everyone was given the same mailing address. At Oak Ridge, street addresses were designed to be confusing to outsiders. Bus routes might be called X-10 or K-25 or Y-12, in reference to the factories they led to, while dorms had simple names such as M1, M2, and M3. If you didn’t already know where you were trying to go, none of it would make sense. “There weren’t any signs on buildings, just numbers, codes names, and numbers,” Wilcox recalled. The town was full of such ciphers, and even employees didn’t know how to decode them all.


Those intimidating billboards about betraying your country with loose lips are long gone, and the town now proudly broadcasts its past. One of its major summer events is the Secret City Festival—a weekend of parades, concerts, and tours of the federal facilities. “It’s the only time during the year that the public can gain access,” Smith says. Some secrets continue to fascinate, even when they’re out in the open.

Read more at How the Manhattan Project’s Nuclear Suburb Stayed Secret 

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