Photos

The Secret City That Birthed the Atomic Bomb

Photos from the Tennessee town of Oak Ridge, where thousands of workers and their families lived while constructing the atom bomb.

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Courtesy: Ed Wescott/DOE

Over at TheAtlantic.com, our colleague Alan Taylor has put together a fascinating 1940s-era photo essay of life in the secret town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He explains:

Starting in 1942, the U.S. government began quietly acquiring more than 60,000 acres in Eastern Tennessee for the Manhattan Project - the secret World War II program that developed the atomic bomb. The government needed land to build massive facilities to refine and develop nuclear materials for these new weapons, without attracting the attention of enemy spies. The result was a secret town named Oak Ridge that housed tens of thousands of workers and their families. The entire town and facility were fenced in, with armed guards posted at all entries. Workers were sworn to secrecy and only informed of the specific tasks they needed to perform. Most were unaware of the exact nature of their final product until the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945.

Ed Westcott was the only photographer authorized to shoot the facility. Below, a selection of his scenes from Oak Ridge. See the rest of the photos here.

Early Construction of the K-25 uranium enrichment facility (background), with one of original houses of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the foreground, in 1942. That year, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began quickly acquiring land in the Oak Ridge area, at the request of the U.S. government, to build production facilities for the Manhattan Project. The K-25 plant, when completed, was the largest building in the world for a time.

Courtesy of Ed Westcott/DOE


Military Police man Elza Gate in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1945. Courtesy of Ed Westcott/DOE


Calutron operators at their panels, in the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. The calutrons were used to refine uranium ore into fissile material. During the Manhattan Project effort to construct an atomic explosive, workers toiled in secrecy, with no idea to what end their labors were directed. Gladys Owens, the woman seated in the foreground, did not realize what she had been doing until seeing this photo in a public tour of the facility fifty years later. Courtesy of Ed Westcott/DOE


Temporary Housing (Hutments) fill the formerly empty valleys of Oak Ridge in 1945. The sudden growth of the military's facilities caused the local population to grow from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945. Courtesy of Ed Westcott/DOE


Oak Ridge's X-10 graphite reactor, in 1947. X-10 was the world's second artificial nuclear reactor (after Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile) and was the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation. Courtesy of DOE

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.