In 1942, a secret town was established by the US government, in Oak Ridge Tennessee. The town had 75,000 residents, most of whom were involved in a top secret government project, but the vast majority knew nothing of either the details of the project, or its huge importance in human history.
The town of Oak Ridge was spread over some 50,000 acres and all around it were warnings to the residents not to disclose any of the work the were involved with.
One former resident recalled “If somebody was to ask you, ‘What are you making out there in Oak Ridge,’ you’d say, ’79 cents an hour,’”
Even the non-military parts of the town were heavily guarded.
Every vehicle entering the town would be searched and residents who asked questions abut the true nature of their jobs would be promptly exiled from the town by the government.
On the surface, Oak Ridge appeared to be the quintessential American town, complete with roller-skating rinks, bowling alleys, sports teams, theaters, shopping and more.
But the true nature of the work the town’s residents were doing would change not just the direction of the war, but the whole of human history.
Of course the residents did not know this at the time. One former resident, Mary Anne Bufard, recalls: –
It just didn’t make any sense at all. I worked in the laundry at the Monsanto Chemical Company, and counted uniforms. I’ll tell you exactly what I did. The uniforms were first washed, then ironed, all new buttons sewed on and passed to me. I’d hold the uniform up to a special instrument and if I heard a clicking noise — I’d throw it back in to be done all over again. That’s all I did — all day long.
So what caused the clicking noise?
Well, it turns out Mary was screening for radiation. Almost everyone who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, was part of the top secret Manhattan Project, the massive top secret American, British, and Canadian operation behind the development of the atomic bomb.
Another Oak Ridge resident, Denise Kiernan, recalls: –
You’d be climbing all over these pipes, and testing the welds in them. Then they had a mass spectrometer there, and you had to watch the dials go off, and you weren’t supposed to say that word, either. And the crazy thing is, I didn’t ask. I mean, I didn’t know where those pipes were going, I didn’t know what was going through them … I just knew that I had to find the leak and mark it.
In August of 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly killing 120,000 people and going on to kill a further 100,000 in the months after through radiation poisoning.
It is the only time in history that atomic bombs have been used in warfare and for the vast majority of the people who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, it is also the first time they would have been aware of the existence of the very bomb that they unwittingly helped to develop.
In 2013, the town’s K-25 uranium-enrichment plant was demolished.
This old hotel known as the Alexander Inn, picture below in 1947, and present day, is one of the few remnants of the original secret city.