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A visit to the Secret City

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By Wayne Lazarus on February 16th, 2010

Categories: Linda's Travel Articles

Unless you’re a World War II history buff, you may not realize that Oak Ridge Tennessee, part of the Manhattan Project, was a secret city. Known as the Clinton Engineering Works, the area used a full seventh of the total electricity generated in the country, had 75,000 people and was the fifth largest city in Tennessee during World War II.  But it wasn’t on any map until 1948, when it was opened to the public and people could come and go without being checked by security. k-25

In 1942, the government bought 59,000 acres of small farms and pastures. The area was chosen partially because of its proximity to Norris Dam which would supply the needed electricity, and partially for its isolation. In a matter of months, construction had begun on the Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant, the X-10 Plutonium Pilot plant and the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion plant. People were brought in to work. Few among those knew that the ultimate goal was to create an atom bomb.

Today, the American Museum of Science and Energy displays both the history of Oak Ridge and the science of the atom. Currently, the photography of Mike Naney, a geologist whose pictures blend science with the natural beauty of the area is on exhibit. The museum opened as the Atomic Energy Museum, a day after the gates came down in 1949. The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge is located in the original Manhattan Project schoolhouse. You can see the K-25 complex on the Secret City Scenic Excursion Tour, a part of the Southern Appalachia Rail Museum. You’ll also want to see the International Friendship Bell on Badger Avenue, the first monument between any of the Manhattan Project cities an Japan.026_40123ml

The Museum of Appalachian History illustrates aspects of much of the pre-war era, and it also has a Sgt. Alvin C. York exhibit. In addition to the prominent role Oak Ridge played in World War II, it has been important in both coal-mining and Civil Rights history. Visit the Coal Miners Museum in nearby Lake City and the Green McAdoo Center in Clinton.

There are plenty of outdoor activities in this beautiful area for those less interested in history. The University of Tennessee Arboretum, a 250-acre reserve with 800 species, varieties and cultivars of woody plants attracts some 30,000 visitors a year.  Birdwatchers enjoy the over 200 species of birds in this part of the state, and others come for the miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails, golf course and lakes.

Interestingly, 19th century resident John Hendrix predicted in 1905 that the area would one day be home to a busy city that would help end the greatest war ever. It’s just one more of the mysteries of the Secret City.

(Photographs courtesy Oak Ridge Convention and Visitor’s Center. Photograph of K-25 Plant by Ed Wescott. International Friendship Bell by Murray Lee, copyright Tennessee State Photo Services.)

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