Oak Ridge, Tennessee

I worked in Oak Ridge for a short time but it has had a very lasting impression on my career. I still maintain close links to those I met there and continually find them to be an excellent resource for professional advice. Many have remained personal friends for years.

My Grandfather, T. M. Carter, worked on the Manhattan Project here during World War II.

A World War II Secret City

Oak Ridge secretOak Ridge, a city framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was built under a cloak of great secrecy during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the city of Oak Ridge did not even exist.  Instead, century-old family farms and small Appalachian communities occupied the area. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was forced to enter the war.

In an effort to bring an end to the war, three cities were chosen to be part of the top-secret “Manhattan Project” which would produce the world’s first atomic weapons.  Those cities were Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was built specifically for the war effort.

The Oak Ridge, Tennessee Gas Diffusion Plant

In 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought 59,000 acres of rural farm land. A city and three manufacturing plants of unprecedented scope were constructed to develop a technology that ended the war. The land on which the town and plants were built met military requirements for isolation, electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam, water, labor and accessibility to nearby highways and railroads.

K_25Scientists had learned by 1939 that uranium atoms could be split with the release of large amounts of energy. This process was called fission. Early in 1942, it was determined that two methods could be used to produce necessary fissionable material — either plutonium 239 or the highly purified isotope uranium 235. Ultimately, three methods were brought to large-scale production. Oak Ridge played a major role in each of these processes. Three facilities, each identified by a code name, were built in the Oak Ridge complex,

The city, which is approximately 10 miles in length and two miles wide, is located in a valley known as Black Oak Ridge. Reaching a peak World War II population of 75,000, it became the fifth largest city in Tennessee in two and a half years.

The Manhattan District was transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on June 1, 1947. In 1949, Oak Ridge was opened to the public. Six years later, the AEC sold the government-owned houses and land to city residents. Oak Ridge was incorporated under a City Council-City Manager charter in May 1959. It currently has a population of close to 28,000.

Housing and Town Life

earlyhousingOak Ridge was the first Manhattan Project site and became the largest of the Project communities with a population at its peak of over 75,000.  The original community was designed to accommodate about 12,000 people.  This design adapted winding streets to the contours of the ridge.  Single family homes were grouped into the three neighborhoods of Pine Valley, Cedar Hill, and Elm Grove, each of which featured an elementary school and essential shopping within walking distance including a drug store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, grocery store, beauty parlor and barber shop.  Five home designs designated “A” through “F” according to size (the houses became known as Alphabet houses).  Homes were assigned according to family size or, in some instances, job importance.

Construction workers lived in 16,000 wooden hutment and barrack spaces, 13,000 dorm rooms, and 5,000 trailers which had little room and no frills.  Three thousand houses, which took two hours each to build, were completed at the rate of one every thirty minutes.  Children would return home to find an entire subdivision had been built while they were at school.

Grocery shopping was frustrating, as one store would attempt to serve 10,000 residents with only basic stock and undependable food shipments, since many suppliers often refused to ship orders to a city that was not on a map.  Standing in long lines became second nature to Oak Ridgers, whether they were shopping or cashing pay checks.


The Department of Energy, which operated the plants when I worked for the City, had historically paid an in-lieu of tax payment to help provide local services. Under the administration of President Ronald Regan, DOE negotiated a one-time lump sum payment and stopped the in lieu of tax support. The challenge for the staff was to develop a long term plan to assure that this nest egg was properly managed and a transition to a new way of funding the City’s expenses was laid out.