Oak Ridge, the Town the Atomic Bomb Built

"Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima, made with uranium-235 from Oak Ridge
"Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima, made with uranium-235 from Oak Ridge

In 1943, after graduating from Washington and Lee University, Bill Wilcox landed a coveted job as a government chemist and was sent to a city that didn’t exist.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then known only as the Clinton Engineering Works, was conspicuously absent from any map. On 60,000 acres of farmland framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it was one of the United States’ three secret cities—remote sites chosen by Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, evacuated of their civilian inhabitants, and developed for the specific purpose of producing an atomic bomb. The men and women of the Clinton Engineering Works would help provide the material for the bomb. “I was told I would be working on uranium, and was sternly cautioned, ‘That’s the last time you will hear that word, and you must never speak it,’” Wilcox, now 87, recalled.

Wilcox’s experience was atypical of the 75,000 government workers and construction personnel who populated the gated district from 1942 to 1945. Many had never heard of uranium until August 6, 1945—65 years ago—when radio broadcasts and newspapers announced that the most powerful weapon ever created had been dropped on a city in Japan, ending the war 22 days later.

The Clinton Engineering Works opened its gates to the public in 1949, and was renamed Oak Ridge; today, its residents are keenly aware of their atomic heritage. The city is home to two of the most advanced neutron science research centers in the world, and the government is still the area’s major employer. But Oak Ridge has come a long way from the stretch of cultivated fields stippled with charmless industrial plants, prefabricated houses, and signs warning its denizens, “What you see here…when you leave here, let it stay here.” Trees that were planted in wartime have since grown tall, and the city is clean and well manicured. Still, the opportunities to celebrate its unique place in history are plentiful.

Visitors to Oak Ridge should start their journey at the American Museum of Science and Energy, which provides a wonderful overview of the city’s wartime past. Its exceptional exhibit includes an original 576-square-foot flat-top house—the type of dwelling a scientist or plant worker would have moved into with his family during the war years. The boxy prefab building, composed of three sections, was designed for quick assembly; at the height of the Manhattan Project, a house went up every 30 minutes.

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, the architecture firm commissioned to design the original communities within the Clinton Engineering Works, created several types of homes for Manhattan Project workers, including dormitories for single men and women. Many were made of cemesto, a mixture of cement and asbestos. House hunting was never an issue for new residents, who were assigned accommodations based on their position and rank. The houses were rented, not sold, and modifications were forbidden. Ten years after the war, the government put the houses up for sale. Bill Wilcox, now the Oak Ridge city historian, reports that 90 percent of those buildings are still in use throughout the city. Though homeowners have made changes—siding, eaves, paint—to distinguish their houses from the others, some Oak Ridge neighborhoods still retain an eerie, modular quality.

A short distance from the American Museum of Science and Energy is A. K. Bissell Park, home of the Secret City Commemorative Walk, a recent and charming addition to the city from its Rotary Club. Located in a beautiful garden, the walk is a memorial to the individuals who came to Oak Ridge during the war. Stroll along the figure eight–shaped path and take in the bronze plaques offering stories of wartime life. Though the work was intense, the young residents had fun, too. Many of them, like Wilcox, were just out of college; the average age in the community during the war was only 27. Tennis courts, then the only paved surface, doubled as dance floors. Residents remember the time as one of excitement, enjoyment, and devotion to a common cause.

Much of what originally brought people to Oak Ridge can still be seen: three of four plants used to produce material for the atomic bomb survive. These buildings are within 30 minutes of the city center, on what are today the sites of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Department of Energy East Tennessee Technology Park, and the Y-12 National Security Complex. On weekdays, the Department of Energy (DOE) operates a three-hour bus tour of these facilities, isolated in a 17-mile-long valley studded by parallel ridges—a major reason the spot was chosen for the Manhattan Project in the first place. If a catastrophic explosion occurred, the ridges would act as buffers between the plants.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory was established in 1948 from the facility codenamed X-10, where plutonium was extracted from irradiated slugs of uranium, and encompasses the original graphite reactor. The exterior and interior of the building that houses the reactor are, as they were then, army green. No longer in service today, the facility is a well-preserved throwback to the days when it produced radioisotopes. With no air conditioning or heating, windows at the top provided the only airflow. Inside, visitors can stare into the giant face of the graphite reactor, which is pocked with more than 1,200 openings into which workers once inserted uranium slugs with long rods. The dark control room, cluttered with knobs, switches, and analog clocks and controls, seems simple and ancient compared with today’s sleek technology.

From a nearby overlook, to the west  on State Highway 58, you can see the original K-25 building—the plant where U-235, the fissionable uranium isotope, was separated from U-238, the heavier, more stable isotope, using a process called gaseous diffusion. It cost $500 million to build (the equivalent of more than $6 billion today), and when it was completed in 1945 it was one of the largest single-roofed buildings in the world.

Dormant since 1987, the enormous U-shaped structure has deteriorated and is currently being torn down. It contains original equipment, some of which is still classified. The demolition will cost more than $1 billion and will take several more years, at which time the area will be used for industries in the Department of Energy’s Eastern Tennessee Technology Park. However, the government plans to preserve K-25’s Gaseous Diffusion Process Building along with some of its equipment, so future generations can learn of K-25’s World War II—and Cold War—era contributions.

The closest a visitor can get to K-25 is via the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train, which follows a rail line that carried construction equipment and supplies in 1943 and 1944. Also visible on the route is a Tennessee Valley Authority substation from the 1940s, which helped generate the the massive amount of electricity required by the plants. The popular 12-mile roundtrip excursion runs the first and third Saturdays of summer months.

The city’s third remaining Manhattan Project plant, Y-12, is a bustling DOE facility that still manufactures, manages, and stores nuclear materials. Aside from the New Hope Center for visitors with a small exhibit hall, access is restricted. But it is remarkable to think that Oak Ridge’s legacy continues today. On this site, beginning in 1943, workers created weapons-grade uranium using a process called electromagnetic isotope separation. Those who knew they were working with uranium were instructed to call it by a code name, tuballoy. One local story tells of a Y-12 scientist who, after seeing newspaper reports that the uranium in the Hiroshima bomb had come from Oak Ridge, was finally able to speak the name of the secret he kept since he first came to Tennessee and ran through the laboratory hallway screaming, “Uranium! Uranium!”

That seems to be a common trait among the men and women who settled Oak Ridge: the eagerness to reveal, and preserve, the secrets of their atomic city.

Planning a trip? Visit the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information.

43 Responses

  1. Malcolm Duncan

    I lived in Oak Ridge for 4 years,it is a beautiful city.FYI: the K-25 plant was the largest building in the world at the time it was built.

  2. linda witwicki

    my uncle was a chemist at Oak Ridge. He died at almost 100 yrs/ I am interested in his life there. How long were he and my aunt there and what was his job. Thank you for your help. Any sites would be appreciated. They had no children and I am now 68 yr. and would love to leave the next gen.with information. LIndaWitwicki

  3. Roberta Utter

    My grandfather worked at Oak Ridge during the production of the atomic bomb. He worked there from 1944 until 1949. Four years later in 1953 he was diagnosed with Squamous cell carcinoma of the face. He died three years in 1956 . In filing a claim it was determined that the only radiation that he was exposed to was from an x-ray that was required each year of employment. They can’t determine where he worked from 1944 until 1946 even though he received a certificate from the Corps of Engineers showing that he worked for the Stone & Webster Engineering Corps in 1945. Stone and Webster built the plants that separated the uranium. I think this is where he was exposed to the ionizing radiation. His cancer was very aggressive and most of his face and neck was gone. I can’t believe that an x-ray would cause this kind of damage, even though the DOL says that this is probably the only radiation that he was exposed to. HAS ANY ONE ELSE EXPERIENCED THIS KIND OF RESPONSE FROM THE DOL with a love one that died soon after the production of the bomb. If so please contact me. Thank You Roberta Utter

    • Jane Selleck Bush

      Hello Roberta – I LIVED IN OAKRIDGE IN 1943-1945….My father ( Joseph Everett Selleck) was an engineer on the site of the Manhattan Project. He died in May of 1945 of Hodgkins

      • Jenny Wang

        Hello! There was a book published recently about the women of oak ridge and their contribution to the war. I was very fascinated and decided to write my junior year major paper on the topic. It would be great if I could interview someone with a first hand account, or second hand. I am very excited to research about oak ridge! Hope to get a reply soon!! Thank you!

      • Jane Selleck Bush

        Hi Roberta – would love to speak with you. Jane

  4. Kathy Rucker hall

    My grandmother, Martha Rucker worked at the oak ridge plant. I have a document from the United States government thanking her for her part in building the atomic bomb. I do not have a clear understanding of what her job would have been.
    I am trying to find anyone that may have known her. She is deceased.

    • PT

      In her new book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, journalist and author Denise Kiernan profiles the lives of several women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tenn. at the time.

  5. Mark Ballinger

    My Mother worked in Oak Ridge when they built the bomb. She was a Social Worker in charge of assigning people thier homes. Putting some of the great mind together where they could live without killing each other. The stories she told us about some of the scientist. She passed in 2004 of never diagnosed blood disease. My Father also worked there as a Janitor and followed my Mother all over this country. She was also in Los Alamos, and White Plains for testing of the bomb. Then she moved on to Macon, Ga for something with the Hydrogen bomb and then the iron lung.

    • Jenny Wang

      Hi! My name is Jenny. I am researching about Oak Ridge for my junior year major paper. I am really fascinated about the women who played a major role in the contruction of the bomb and their contribution to the war. I want to ask if it is possible to interview either your mother or yourself? Please contact me soon if this is possile! I am very excited to learch more about this topic! Thank you!

  6. Janice Accivatti

    My mom worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in fingerprinting. She was from Lynch, Kentucky. Her name was Beatrice Morgan. She died at age 55 with a very aggressive acute myelogenous leukemia. She never spoke of Atomic City other than to say she worked there in fingerprinting. She had a letter from the U.S. Government thanking her for her part in helping to build the Atomic Bomb. Her illness came out of nowhere, and I have always wondered how many other workers from these facilities have succumbed to blood cancers? Could be another interesting book if there was a way to get a list of those who worked there.

    • PE Pendley

      My mother worked in Oak Ridge from 1944 – 1945. She had terrible allergies for the rest of her life and died from Multiple Myeloma – a blood cancer. Her sister also worked there and died from Lymphoma. Her sister continued to live and work and raise a family in Oak Ridge after the war and two of the children who still live in OR have also have had medical issues – one benign brain tumors and the other lung scaring of unknown orign..she is on the transplant list for new lungs. There has to be a link to these issues and Oak Ridge.

      • DTG

        Have you contacted them for settlement for their illnesses. Do sFrostyo ASAP.

  7. Kristine Bouchie-Sette

    My grandpa worked (1943-1945) died at the good ole age of 97. There was a video but my dad and I have looked for over the internet and have not found it. If anyone has any information. Please let me know. momsette@aol.com also my Gpa’s name is Charles Bouchie.

  8. J.Thomas

    I am trying to find any information that I can about my grandmother’s time while she was working at the plant. She got sick before I was born (not related to working there) and was unable to speak about any of it. We found some of her booklets about living there and a post card but nothing else. Is there somewhere that I can go and find out this information?

  9. Albert Verbyla

    I have several pieces of lab radiation detection equipment that I acquired from Oak Ridge in 1950 if anyone has a interest.

  10. Bill Looney

    This article says the gates were opened in 1949 and Clinton Engineering Works was named Oak Ridge. Well. I was born in Oak Ridge in 1945 and my birth certificate says Oak Ridge, Tn. My father was a welder and welded on both bombs and he received a citation thanking him for bringing the war to a close sooner. My father and mother have died and I have no idea what happened to the citation but I would dearly love to have a copy if someone can steer me in the right direction. Thank you very much. His name was Lewell Leslie Looney

  11. Zedman

    Although it is being called an ‘atomic’ bomb these days, back when da ‘bomb’ was used, it was called an ‘atom’ bomb.

  12. Teresa Stewart Lowery

    I would love to see any pictures anyone has of the “tennis court dances” that they used to have back in the 1040’s. My mom’s name was Audrey Wright, later to Audrey Stewart. She used to talk about these dances. Everytime she did her eyes would shine with delite! She had so much fun at these. I am hoping to find a picture of her “dancing star” days. Thanks so much!

  13. Patricia Stoner Myers

    Both of my parents lived and worked in Oak Ridge during the early years. My dad was a civil engineer and my mom worked in the payroll department running the \addressograph\ machine. Dad died in 1961 (don’t think it was any related illness) and Mom died in 2009. She told us some stories …of President Roosevelt coming to visit and it was all \hush-hush\ and they had to stay inside the buildings while he was there. Told of playing cards with physicists who never revealed the secret, but would just say \pray\.
    I would also like more information. My father worked for Stone Webster Engineering with the construction. My father’s name was Homer Eugene Stoner and my mother’s name was Dorothy Virginia Stoner. We stopped at Oak Ridge a couple of years ago and tried to find their names in some old city directories or phone books in the library. The years they lived there 1944-1945, the directory was missing ??odd??. Librarian sent us to a government office that had archives, but we were told to send a written request. No response!

  14. Sheri Lofgren

    My grandpa worked at k25 from 1943-46. Don’t know what he did. His name was Buena Vista Marshall. Did anyone know him?
    Also, his son(my dad) Ed Marshall lived there from 6th to 9th grade. Ed Marshall was a boy scout and had a paper route. He is now 85.Would love any one who may have know them. My dad does not know what his dad did. He died at the age of 40. One year after he left Oakridge. Wondering if there is any relation to radiation poisoning. Thanks, Sheri Lofgren 310 3447384

  15. kim holt


    My great-grandfather died of leukemia in the mid-1950s. It’s a family legend that he maintained all of his friends from the Oak
    Ridge atomic project were dying or already dead when he was diagnosed. They were all exposed to radiation during the project.

  16. dodie volo

    I’m reading The Girls of Atomic City, I never knew about this. Your replies are very interesting. How sad it was that they took so much good land from farmers & hard working people & paid them so little in return, just to build bombs. Just told them they had to be out by…
    Why doesn’t the government stay the hell away…they always make things worse.

  17. Jackie

    My grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the army. He was an engineer and worked in Oak Ridge during WWII. I’m trying to do more research to see if I can find out more about what he did and if he is remembered by others. He died in 1975 of lung cancer. I remember he smoked a pipe, so we assume that was the reason for the cancer. His name is Henry George Hoberg. My mom has great old photographs of him in uniform, but she has never told me much about WWII.

  18. Donna Baker

    My mothers name was Edith Green, she was from Loudon County Tenn. She was a welder on the project and her friends there called her “Red” because of her hair color. She was there after I was born. I would say from 1945-1949, She was exposed , I was told, to a radiation leak while she worked there. She died in 1963 from lymphoma
    Does anyone have relatives that ever spoke of her?

  19. Jane Selleck Bush

    Would really be very interested in a “reunion” with any one who lived in Oak Ridge “back in the day”. Please communicate with me. I was an infant when first arriving there. I was born 1/31/43 in Richmond, VA and went directly to Oak Ridge. My father, Joseph Everett Selleck died in May of 1945. My mother was pregnant. Please contact me. Jane

  20. Allen Owens

    My grandfather worked at Oakbridge and my father was in the war fighting the Japanese my grandfather lived to be 82 years old he never told anyone about his work there until years later all I know is he was and engineer.

  21. Gail Wooster

    My mom worked at Oak Ridge during this time also. She tells me the story about the day they brought all the employees together and told them what they had all just been a part of. Great story. We just celebrated her 90th birthday this weekend and we’ll be visiting Oak Ridge. By the way, she’s perfectly healthy! Thanks for all the great comments and information.

  22. Randy

    My grandmother- Rosa Hall Barger- worked on the bomb in Oak Ridge during the war. She was a crane operator. She died at age 94, 10 years ago. I was proud that we were able to visit Oak Ridge together before she passed away. An amazing piece of history- I could not believe my quiet, Southern, little grandmother worked in a secret plant that assembled the atomic bomb that ended WWII. As a civilian, she and most plant workers had no idea what they were building… but knew it was something big. Of most concern to my grandmother was the possible exposure to cancer-causing radiation. Cancer took my mother, my two brothers, my grandfather and eventually my grandmother also. I am a cancer survivor as well. Although she began the complicated process of applying for benefits to compensate those who worked at Oak Ridge during the war (enacted by the Clinton Administration?) she passed away before completing the process or receiving any benefits from the Act.

    What an amazing generation this was.


  23. Randy

    My grandmother- Rosa Hall Barger- worked in the plant as a crane operator during the war. She and her sisters were from nearby Loudon Tennessee. My grandmother and our family have battled cancer all of our lives. My grandmother tried to apply for benefits under the ACT enacted to benefit those who worked on the bomb (unknowingly), but she passed away of cancer before completing the very complicated process; but I was proud of her for trying. The process itself took several years to complete. As I understand it, benefits are not available to family survivors. I’m very proud of her.


  24. ORhistorian

    The benefits are available to the survivors. The surviving spouse,children or grandchildren are eligible for a settlement unless something has changed drastically since 2014.

  25. Dorothy (Dot) B. Bowman

    My husband, Albert (Lee) Bowman worked in Oak Ridge for 2 years, then 35 years at the Idaho National Lab site west of Idaho Falls, ID. He died at age 72 of colon/liver cancer; he also had cancer of a finger. The Dept.Of Labor contacted him and sent claim forms…for those exposed to ionizing radiation. He, and later I, went through the process for several years, all the paperwork, and with the personal testimonies of co-workers. He had been exposed radically several times. But he was turned down for aid. Many seem to have similar stories. Dot.

  26. Nancy Wallette

    Gail, are you the same person who went thru the TVA NSGPO training program at Sequoyah in 1976?


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