The Secret City
The Manhattan Project
ORNL Today

The Secret City

Building a secret city was no easy task. The Federal Government set aside a 60,000 acre tract of land on which to build the city and the plants. This region of East Tennessee met the military requirements for isolation, electric power, water, labor and accessibility to nearby highways and railroads. This was made possible largely by the local TVA facilities. About 3,000 people were living in the area, scattered about three different communities. Unfortunately these people were given merely a few weeks notice to relocate in support of the war effort.

The Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers was formed in June 1942 to oversee the entire atomic weapons program. General Leslie R. Groves, who had made his career studying and developing military bases, headed The Manhattan Project. Under his direction, the secret city construction began. At this point the city was referred to as Clinton Engineering Works, named after the nearby city of Clinton. The city itself was ten miles long and two miles wide. It spanned across the valley known as Black Oak Ridge and later would be renamed Oak Ridge.

Along with building three unprecedented plants, all houses, churches, schools, hospitals and other necessary buildings had be constructed in a matter of a few months. Some sources claim that by the time all of the houses in the city were completed, they had gone up at a rate of two per minute. The housing included trailers, dormitories, hutments and single family dwellings called cemestos. These single family homes were built in a variety of floor plans, depending on the intended family's size, and each size was designated by a letter of the alphabet. This system lent to the speedy construction. Today, many of these houses still exist, and Oak Ridgers know if they live in an A, B, C, or D house.

For example, The chapel-on-the-Hill, pictured here, was built in 1943 as the first church in the area. The sign says the following: "Built in 1943 near the main business district (Jackson Square), this standard Army chapel was soon known within the Manhattan Project as 'The Chapel-on-the-Hill.' On 30 September 1943 it was dedicated for Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant worship. The United Church, a non-denominational congregation founded 18 July 1943, purchased the chapel in 1955 and continues to worship here. More than 4,000 weddings were celebrated in this ecumenical chapel during the first fifty years."

The construction of the city was necessary to house the thousands of scientists, member of military, construction workers, other workers and employees, as well as their families. At its peak, the small city reached a wartime population of 75,000 people, and while many didn't even know it existed, it was became the fifth largest city in Tennessee for two and a half years.

The secret city truly remained a secret, however, and it did not appear on any maps for seven years. Access to the city was only allowed by special approval, and guard posts at either entrance to the city required security badges for admittance. Residents were required to wear their badges at all times outside of their homes.

Many residents and even employees and workers at the plants did not understand the significance or even the nature of the Manhattan Project due to its secrecy. General Groves did not even address the city under his real name. Many who were part of this historical project had no idea that in the same facilities, the government was developing the atomic bomb.

Although the Manhattan Project also included work in several cities, it mainly comprised of three: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Groves moved the administration buildings for the project from New York to Oak Ridge in 1943, thus moving the Manhattan District Office and the Manhattan Engineer District to the city and making it the home of the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan District was transferred the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on June 1, 1947. Then in 1949, Oak Ridge became open to the public. The AEC sold the government-owned houses and land six years later to city residents. The city continued to expand and was incorporated under a City Council-City Manager charter in May 1959. The history of this city is rich in unique roots, accomplishments and individuals' stories. It's an interesting journey to explore the amazing history of The Secret City.