Touring Oak Ridge -- The Secret City of World War II
By Hayden Evans

Imagine a city of 75,000 behind a security fence in East Tennessee so cloaked in secrecy that its workers and other inhabitants did not know what was being produced in three manufacturing facilities of unprecedented scope of the U. S. Government. The creation of the secret city of Oak Ridge began in 1942 as a major site of the “Manhattan Project,” which was the code name for the massive wartime effort that produced the world’s first atomic weapons. Every person over the age of 12 who lived and worked in Oak Ridge had to wear an identification badge at all times in those days. The gates were guarded.

A USA Today and Newseum poll called the development of the atomic bomb the “most significant story of the 20th Century”. The armed gates to the city were not opened to the public until March 19, 1949 and only then did Oak Ridge appear on a map. The city was not incorporated until 1959.

Today, Oak Ridge is a world class center for scientific and technological innovations. From genetics to robotics to Internet advances and neutron scattering, world-changing technologies continue to be developed in the facilities.

In 1942, with World War II raging, a team of scientists from Washington D. C. visited the quiet farming communities in Bear Creek Valley between Black Oak and Chestnut ridges in East Tennessee. They found a 60,000-acre tract of land that met military requirements of isolation, water and rail access and abundant electric power. The landowners were ordered to move off their lands quickly and the building of plants for the top secret wartime project began.

The interest in heritage tourism has grown and the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau has available a driving tour that tells the story of Oak Ridge’s past while pointing out important sites to visitors. The recorded audio tour, available on compact discs and cassettes to include a map, directs visitors on the self-guided automobile tour.

The Oak Ridge Welcome Center, operated by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, 302 South Tulane Avenue, is the place for visitors to begin tours to the various sites. Many different brochures and maps of the area are available in the Welcome Center as well as the self-guided tour material. The driving tour has 25 stops and the visitor can choose certain points of interest depending on time available with one to three hours recommended. Volunteers and staff on duty at the center greet and assist visitors with tour information. The Welcome Center is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information call 865-482-7821 or 1-800-887-3429 or fax 865-481-3543 or visit the web site at

The American Museum of Science and Energy is located next door to the Welcome Center. AMSE is a must see for anyone visiting Oak Ridge or its environs. The history of the Manhattan Project is told in the museum’s “Oak Ridge Story Room” with photos, recordings and artifacts, including some from the Smithsonian Institution. The museum brings science and technology to life through interactive displays and live demonstrations. A popular demonstration of static electricity literally raises the hair on one’s head upon touching the display. Other interactive hands-on- exhibits include a power laboratory experiment with plasma energy and electricity; a micro laboratory view of the world through oversize microscopes; a laboratory for creating and operating robots, brain teasers that challenge the mind with fun puzzles, optical illusions allowing walks into infinity mirrors and much more.

The Oak Ridge Art Center is just around the corner from the AMSE. It is a private, not-for-profit center and museum containing a permanent collection of contemporary international artists with rotating exhibits of local and regional artists. The rotating exhibitions include one-man, group, traveling, and juried shows. The permanent art collection is world class. The mural painted on the outside of the center represents Oak Ridge’s beginning from Atomic energy to the future.

The International Friendship Bell at Bissell Park is a short walk from AMSE. Dedicated in 1996, the Japanese-made bell celebrates the growing friendship between Japan, Oak Ridge and America. Visitors may ring the bell. It shows the dates of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dates of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A popular stop on the auto tour is the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. It contains creative exhibits and heritage displays that never fail to delight children of all ages including adults. Among the museum’s many exhibits is a child-sized dollhouse, an indoor Amazon rainforest, exhibits on both Appalachian and Japanese culture, a collection of early Oak Ridge memorabilia, bird room, international hall, mining exhibit and more. The world of train’s exhibit features an extensive model train layout for viewing including a hands-on area for children and a real caboose on a railroad siding outside the museum.

The University of Tennessee Arboretum in Oak Ridge is on the driving tour route. The Arboretum has a Nature Center, wildlife observation area and four beautiful nature trails for visitors to stroll and view the area’s 2,500 native plants

The tour includes Historic Jackson Square, which was the first town site. The square and its retail area feature some of the city’s finest craft and specialty shops. The square still has a 1940s feel. The Oak Ridge Community Playhouse in the square is the longest continuously running playhouse in the Southeast.

The tour stops described are but a few of the many points of interest in Oak Ridge on the driving tour. Further, the map accompanying the self-guided tour information provides descriptions and directions to dozens of other area attractions. For example, the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train offers narrated, one-hour train rides and dinner trips on restored cars pulled by locomotives of the 1950s era. The train track was built over 60 years ago and runs through scenic territory. The Museum of Appalachia, another popular tourist site located only a few miles from AMSE, has been called the most complete replica of pioneer Appalachian life in the world.

The John Hendrix visions. Visitors find fascinating the story of John Hendrix who roamed the area more than 40 years before the federal government plants were built. He first predicted that a railroad would be built running from Knoxville through the central part of Anderson County. This prediction proved accurate and caused Hendrix to consider himself capable of even more prophecies. He was told by a voice, he said, to sleep on the ground for 40 nights and he would learn of the future. He did as he was told and on the 41st day emerged from the woods and appeared at the local crossroads general store. He told everyone who would listen about the startling vision he had experienced.

“Bear Creek Valley some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that will ever be,” Hendrix said. “There will be a city on Black Oak Ridge and the center of authority will be on a spot middle-way between Sevier Tadlock’s farm and Joe Pyatt’s place. A railroad spur will branch off the main L&N line, run down toward Robertsville and then branch off and turn toward Scarboro,” he continued. “Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake. I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”

The neighbors thought the old man was crazy. However, his predictions were uncannily accurate. He died in 1915 and twenty-eight years later a giant complex was built in Bear Creek Valley that produced parts of the atomic bomb. It was constructed in 18 months and code named Y-12. It still exists and thousands of employees are involved in nuclear work at the site today. The U. S. Department of Energy administration building stands where Hendrix said the center of authority would be located. John Hendrix died at 49 and was buried on a hilltop that is now a subdivision of Oak Ridge named Hendrix Creek.

Today, Oak Ridge has more than 27,000 residents. However, thousands of commuters work in the U. S government facilities that are not open to the public.

During WW II, Oak Ridge was the fifth largest city in Tennessee, had the sixth largest bus system in the U. S. and utilized one-seventh of the nation’s electricity.

The American Museum of Science and Energy opened in 1949 on the day the gates came down in Oak Ridge. It was originally called the Atomic Energy Museum.

Houses were constructed every 30 minutes at the height of the Manhattan Project.

 The average age in Oak Ridge during WW II was 27.

The original 60,000 acres purchased by the federal government in 1942 was populated by 3,000 people living in approximately 1,000 homes scattered throughout the communities of Scarboro, Wheat, Elza and Robertsville.

The Clinton Engineer Works was the initial name of the Manhattan Project. Clinton is the county seat of Anderson County where Oak Ridge is located.

The Oak Ridge Rowing Course on Melton Hill Lake is one of the top three courses in the nation. Oak Ridge is one of three cities to host the U. S. Rowing Nationals.

Oak Ridge has a symphony orchestra, civic ballet, children’s show choir, community band, chorus, arts council, community playhouse/junior playhouse, writers association and numerous other cultural and civic organizations for a city of its size.

Oak Ridge has one of the highest per capita ratios of Ph.D. of any city in the world.

(The author is a Middle Tennessean who has lived in Clinton for 30 years. He is a retired army officer, retired banker, journalist, author and free-lance writer. He also is director of communications and public relations for a staffing company with offices in Oak Ridge and Knoxville)

Back to Main Page