Oak Ridge, Tennessee: America's Outback
John Rice Irwin remembers it well: “A paper was pinned on our screen door. My mother took it off and read it to my daddy. It said we had 16 days to move.” The year was 1942; our country was 11 months into World War II. The paper was an order from the U.S. government.
In the Black Oak Ridge Valley here in northeastern Tennessee a thousand families got the same notice that fall. “We were all scrambling to find a new place to live and get moved into it by Thanksgiving,” John said. “But it was ‘an-ox-in-the-ditch situation.’ There were no trucks available. We had a 325-acre farm with out-buildings and a graining crib. We ended up on 110 acres. The government gave no help except to move the graves in the county to a new cemetery. They did do that.”
For many here, it was the second time in a decade they had been forced from their homes. But then it was the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) doing the evicting. And they could see the need for it and were given time to get organized. The TVA was going to build dams and reservoirs along Tennessee River that would bring low-cost electric power, recreational lakes and jobs to the area.
But this was not like that. They were told nothing except “don’t ask.” All they knew was what they saw with their own eyes: armed guards in Army khakis, construction workers streaming in by the thousands who were working around the clock. Fences and roads appeared almost overnight. Signs went up saying, “Small leaks sink great ships.”
The town of Oak Ridge was quickly assembled with trailers, wood-frame dormitories and hundreds of prefab houses. Schools were built, as was a movie theater, a swimming pool and a shopping center.
And then came the buses full of workers, recruited from all across the country, usually from colleges. Oak Ridge, with a tall fence around it, quickly became the fifth-largest city in the state, but it never appeared on any map.
Judge “Buddy” Scott’s father worked in one of the “project buildings,” but he never said what he did there. “It was a storybook existence,” is how the judge described life here as an 8-year-old. “The government ran everything. There was no caste system, everybody was young, very few autos. We used buses to get around. Of course, nobody could get in or out of town without an ID, and kids could not get out at all without their parents. Security was tight. Our mothers loved it.”
Of the thousands who worked here — the population reached 75,000 — only a handful knew what they were doing vis-à-vis the big picture, even fewer knew why.
In August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, with devastating, unbelievable results. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped. (We only had two.) The next day Japan surrendered and the war was over.
Only then were the people in Oak Ridge told that they produced the enriched uranium that made those bombs. Called the Manhattan Project, it was — and remains — the largest industrial project in the history of the world. For three years, the Manhattan Project used one-tenth of the electric power produced in the United States — more than New York City.
The Manhattan Project gets little mention in the history books of World War II — reason enough for us, the explorers of America’s outback, to discover it for ourselves.
With world-class museums and the experts still around to explain things, Oak Ridge today could not be more open and accommodative.
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Web Extra: In the August 1995 issue of Trailer Life, Bill Graves also visited Wendover, Utah, where another part of this amazing story took place during World War II.
“It was perfect for a wartime project, so secret that not even the crew of the Enola Gay knew its mission.”
Download the Wendover Utah PDF to read the original article.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]. Next month Bill will be at Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Michigan.