Recently we saw a copy of a letter posted on the wall of a museum. It was dated November third. The letter said. “The federal government is taking your land for a project of vital national importance. We’re going to pay you fair value for it, and you have to be gone by December 15.” Six weeks to pack up and leave. Hundreds of people got these letters. A fair number of them had been forcibly displaced to make room for the great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of those, some had been displaced a second time for construction of dams by the Tennessee Valley Authority. As you might imagine, they were not too happy. But what could they do? War was coming, and Uncle Sam needed a safe place to develop a secret weapon.
The place he chose was a remote valley in the Tennessee mountains with a scattered rural population, far from transportation corridors, air lanes, and casual visitors. The town that grew up here is called Oak Ridge, and it’s the home of the atomic bomb. To be fair, work was done elsewhere, too—in Los Alamos, New Mexico and Hanford, Washington—but this was the beating heart of the infant nuclear age.
Contractors, sworn to secrecy, poured in and built a city. Three years later, seventy-five thousand residents lived and worked here behind a ten-foot-high fence and under the eyes of elevated guard towers. The city offered schools, movie theaters, churches, restaurants, a library, sports facilities, and a symphony orchestra. It even had its own Fuller brush salesman. The National Museum of Science and Energy, where you can learn about all this, is part of the national park system.
Because of the war, a majority of the workers here were women. We enjoyed reading a fascinating book, The Girls of Atomic City, that details the efforts and the daily lives of these patriotic scientists and technicians. Women gathered here from around the country, knowing only that they were volunteering to help in the war effort. From the sprouting of the city almost overnight to the challenges of keeping house and living a life of total secrecy, you’ll be impressed with the lives they made for themselves and their families.
Outside of the museum you can see a fully restored flat-top house. These unique modular homes were developed to meet the need for fast, comfortable accommodations when thousands of families suddenly arrived. Featuring two bedrooms, living room, bath and kitchen, each house could be erected by a crew of four in an afternoon. Several of these have made their way around the country and can be seen in other locations.
For a variety of reasons, Oak Ridge was also at the heart of the movement to desegregate public schools, and the now-vanished town of Scarboro had one of the first segregated high schools to be closed as integration swept the south. The struggle for civil rights played out here in microcosm several years before it gripped the nation as a whole.
When you visit Oak Ridge, don’t miss the International Peace Bell, the University of Tennessee Arboretum, and the Southern Appalachia Railroad Museum. Drive the Coal Creek Motor Nature Trail, and enjoy one of several excellent campgrounds along the shoes of the reservoirs in the area. Look out across the water and you might just see us, Patti and Tom Burkett, somewhere off the beaten path.
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