By Marilyn Turk
In 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired 60,000 acres of farmland in a Tennessee valley surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. As property owners were bought out, they were evacuated from the area and the Clinton Engineering Works began building a huge production facility. The rural area was selected for its relatively remote location and its low population.
It would eventually become one of the United States' three secret cities built for the Manhattan Project, the American, British and Canadian operation to develop the atomic bomb. Unknown to them, the men and women of the Clinton Engineering Works would provide material for the bomb.
The United States was at war, and all Americans were encouraged to support the war effort. Large numbers of workers for the facility’s uranium plants were recruited by the government, which built dormitories for single men and women and houses for married couples. Housing accommodations were assigned based on position and rank. The houses were rented, not sold, and modifications were forbidden.
Most of the workers were young, and married workers were discouraged from having children so they could devote more time to their jobs. Employees were forbidden to talk about their jobs, much less speak certain words like helium or the name of the equipment they used, warned that national security was at risk.
These restrictions had a negative influence on the morale in the factories and the workers became suspicious. Even though they were told they performed a very important job for their country, they were not able to see the results of their duties. All workers wore badges, and the town was surrounded by guard towers and a fence with armed guards who inspected every vehicle at each of the seven gates.
In an effort to raise employee morale, the government decided to change the work camp into a the perfect American town with theaters, roller-skating rinks, sports teams, bowling alleys, grocery stores, a library, churches, schools and more. The plan was to keep workers happy during their free time which would keep them motivated at work.
The population of the settlement grew from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 by 1945. The K-25 uranium-separating facility by itself covered 44 acres and was the largest building in the world at that time. At its peak, Oak Ridge had so many residents, its bus system was one of the largest in the United States. In fact, the entire town used more electricity than New York City.
The name "Oak Ridge" was chosen for the settlement in 1943 from among suggestions submitted by employees, however, the name wasn't official until 1949. Until then the area was simply known as CEW, abbreviation for the Clinton Engineering Works.
Even when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, the employees didn't know they had helped to build the weapon. They celebrated the end of the war like the rest of the country. Only afterwards did they discover the purpose of their jobs and their town.
Photos were taken by Ed Westcott, the only photographer ever allowed to take pictures of the town.
Marilyn Turk has been published in Guideposts magazine, Guideposts books - A Joyful Heart and A Cup of Christmas Cheer, The Upper Room, Clubhouse Jr. magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Lighthouse Digest magazine. The first book in her Coastal Lights Legacy series, Rebel Light, as well as her Lighthouse Devotions book, will be published in September 2014. Fascinated by lighthouses, she writes a weekly lighthouse blog @ http://marilynturk.com. She lives in Florida with husband Chuck and enjoys boating, fishing, tennis, and gardening when she’s not climbing lighthouses or playing with her grandsons.
Wow, I have never heard of this. Marilyn, this was fascinating! Such a ripe area for an entire series. So...have you started it yet???? lolReplyDelete
Pam, yes, wouldn't it be a great setting? And no I haven't started one there yet. I wonder if anyone else has?ReplyDelete
That was an interesting story, Marilyn. I, too, envision possibilities for a novel here, and it could be approached from a few different angles.ReplyDelete
So who's going to be the first to write the series - Pam or Rebecca?Delete
Very fascinating! I wonder what it would've been like to live and work there.ReplyDelete
Sounds like it would have been more fun after they built all the recreation facilities.Delete
I've never heard of Oak Ridge before. Very interesting. It's hard to believe that none of the people who worked there ever figured out what they were making.ReplyDelete
That was so interesting.Thank you, Marilyn. Vickie, as for figuring it out, they'd never heard of the Atomic Bomb, unlike we who have grown up knowing about it. A different world, for sure.ReplyDelete
Glad you enjoyed it, Linore. You're right. They had no idea.Delete
Marilyn, great post. I learned about Oak Ridge earlier this year when I met Denise Kiernan who wrote a non-fiction book, THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY. I was fascinated. You might want to read her book as research if you're thinking of a series. Sadly, I have the book but haven't had time to read it.ReplyDelete
I've seen that book, Carla, and definitely would buy it if I wrote the series!Delete
I don't know Marilyn, you did such a great job with this post that maybe you should start the series, eh? Gosh that gave me goosebumps! Imagine finding out later on that what you did at work for the last three years had something to do with building the atomic bomb? Holy cow, I'd be devastated! So is Oak Ridge still around or did it turn into a ghost town with the end of the war since its main cause of work and living was done and over with? Btw...I think you should start on this series ASAP!!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Kam. Maybe someday I will write the series, but I've got a couple other books to write first.Delete
Interesting that the workers did not know what they were building. I suppose that could happen at any place at any time period. Thanks for your post. sharon wileygreen1ATyahooDOTcomReplyDelete
Thanks for your comment, Sharon.Delete