Secret History in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Workers leaving an Oak Ridge plant at shift change
Workers leaving an Oak Ridge plant at shift change

Once again, my history teachers have failed me. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know that this has been a point of outrage in the past. I was never told about the notorious Smith lynching, which was witnessed by nearly a third of my hometown’s population. They neglected to inform me about the battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. Now I find out that a top secret nuclear facility, right across the border in Tennessee, developed the plutonium that powered the bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Virginia public schools, could you miss any more opportunities to bring history to life?

This means that the entire trajectory of the 20th century–the world changing destruction in Japan, the rise of nuclear arms, the entire cold war–started in our neck of the woods, in a little town called Oak Ridge.

Beginning in October 1942, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began seizing land in Tennessee’s Anderson County, an area about 25 miles West of Knoxville. Within five short months, the corps had removed all residents, raised protective fences, and began construction on Oak Ridge, a top secret town that appeared on no maps. Even local residents didn’t realize that they lived next to a production facility for the Manhattan Project, the legendary effort to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Fissionable plutonium for bombs would prove to be the facilities greatest accomplishment, but weapons weren’t the only products in development at Oak Ridge. With thousands of scientists on staff, the facility pursued a number of projects, including the creation of a nuclear powered airplane.

This was the exclusive focus of one Millicent G. Dillon. In a riveting essay published by the literary magazine The Believer, Dillon describes her experience in the Tennessee mountains. By the time she arrived in 1947, the nuclear bombs had already been dropped; the war was over; and the Red Scare was growing. She recounts how she lived in the secret city–dodging cockroaches and scrounging for toilet paper–and how she left following a political firestorm that could have been lifted from a Cold War thriller.




In January 1947, when I was twenty-one, I went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to work as a low-level physicist on a secret project, NEPA. I knew nothing about NEPA except that it was an acronym for Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft. As for Oak Ridge, I knew from accounts after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945, only that the project had produced fissionable material for the atom bomb.

I had accepted the Oak Ridge job after a single telephone call from an official at NEPA. My name had apparently been plucked from a roster of junior physicists who had worked on defense contracts during the war. My employment background was not a sterling one, as I had a history of rebelling against my supervisors. But the caller seemed to know no more about me than I knew about him, so I supposed he just needed to recruit bodies. I had run out of money, and my projected salary, two hundred dollars a month, sounded like untold prosperity to me. Uncertain and confused as I was about my future, perhaps I thought chance was showing me the way.



  • jterry

    You wouldn’t believe all the stuff they didn’t teach us down in Tennessee, down river from all that nuclear fun.

  • Leslie

    I knew about the nuclear facility in Oak Ridge and I think I learned about it in Virginia history in the 4th grade. But I’m probably older than you and I grew up in the 1960s, when we all thought a nuclear bomb was going to end things any day. I recently learned about the Battle of Blair Mountain, though, and had no idea about the Smith lynching. I live where I grew up, about an hour and 15 minutes from Roanoke.

  • Jim

    Mark, excellent post and thanks for the link to ms Dillon’s article. She pointed out many of the less noble aspects of the Manhattan Project, but she also gave an excellent insight into the more noble ones as well, such as the actions that eventually led to the civilian control of atomic energy. Unfortunately, we see entirely too much of the same dynamic today between restraint and jingoism, and not just in nuclear affairs.

    I would like to point out minor errors in fact, however. Oak Ridge produced the fissionable uranium that was used in the “little boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The plutonium that fueled the “fat man” bomb later dropped on Nagasaki was produced at Hanford, Washington, although the research that made the Hanford reactors and chemical separations possible were largely a product of Oak Ridge.

    The guest house where Ms Dillon stayed on her arrival in Oak Ridge is currently the focus of preservation efforts there. Two attempts to save it have failed thus far, but people are still working on it. Just this past week the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Interior endorsed the proposed Manhattan Project National Park. If created, the Park would have units at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

    After many years of a culture of secrecy, Oak Ridge is at last recognizing its historical value. Preservation efforts have begun and “The Secret City” is being marketed as a tourism destination. Sadly, none of the dormitories or hutments that once defined the town remain to be preserved.

  • marklynn

    Jim, thank so much for the additional info. You are now officially my “go to” source for any future stories on fissionable material!

  • Uncle

    I’m surprised that you didn’t get the information on Oak Ridge/Hanford and Blair Mountain. I guess it really was a “growing up in the 1960’s” thing. I also remember hearing about these things in about 4th grade. I’m surprised that they don’t include the site of the first nuclear reactor up at the University of Chicago in the park. There are several good books available on the subject.

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