Adventures in the Secret City: Visiting Oak Ridge, TN

The X-10 Reactor Control Room
The X-10 Reactor Control Room

Not many people know of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, let alone know of its role in the Manhattan Project. As an avid supporter of the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Park, I’ve been trying to find ways to explore and support the challenges posed by interpreting and promoting this challenging era of American history. Earlier this summer, I read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, which really  cemented my interest in exploring the community of Oak Ridge and it’s role in the Project. As an aside, Denise Kiernan’s book is stunningly written, especially her voice and the way she tells the story of each of the women in describing the development of the Atomic Bomb – highly recommend! 

This summer, the American Museum of Science and Energy, along with the Department of Energy Oak Ridge partners, started to offer daily bus tours of the Oak Ridge Reservation and DOE Facilities. I convinced my sister, Shannon, to meet me in Oak Ridge for a sister’s weekend exploring the Secret City. Shannon also read Kiernan’s Girls of Atomic City, so we were both eager to explore the sites mentioned throughout the book.

DAY 1: SATURDAY

We arrived Saturday night and headed over to dinner at historic Jackson Square, the Oak Ridge original townsite and business district. We enjoyed some great home cooking at Dean’s Restaurant, including some phenomenal strawberry cake. After dinner, we explored some of the original town, including the Chapel on the Hill, a standard Army chapel built in 1943. We also saw the Guest House (or Alexander Inn), the only hotel available to guests of Oak Ridge during World War II.

The Chapel on the Hill
The Chapel on the Hill
Detail of the Chapel on the Hill
Detail of the Chapel on the Hill

Afterwards, we headed out towards the Oak Ridge Reservation and the K-25 site. Although it was around sunset, we snagged a few photos at the K-25 overlook and at one of the original guard houses.

K-25 Plant Overlook at Oak Ridge
K-25 Plant Overlook at Oak Ridge
Oak Ridge Guard House
Oak Ridge Guard House

DAY 2: SUNDAY

On Sunday morning, we decided to head to the nearby Norris Dam State Park. The primary feature of the park is the TVA owned and operated Norris Dam. The Norris Dam is a New Deal project that began in 1933 and was completed in 1936. The power produced by the Norris Dam helped power Oak Ridge during World War II.

Even though we arrived during a downpour, there was a break in the rain to allow us to go for a hike along the Clinch River, in a trail located downriver from the Dam.

The Norris Dam
The Norris Dam
Foggy fisherman on the Clinch River in the Norris Dam State Park
Foggy fisherman on the Clinch River in the Norris Dam State Park
Shannon photographing the foggy Clinch River
Shannon photographing the foggy Clinch River

The weather was not particularly cooperative, so we decided to head down to Knoxville for some sushi. We made a few side trips, including photographing other areas of the Clinch River and exploring the University of Tennessee’s campus.

The TVA Bull Run Fossil Plant and the Clinch River
The TVA Bull Run Fossil Plant and the Clinch River
Ayres Hall on the Hill at the University of Tennessee's campus.
Ayres Hall on the Hill at the University of Tennessee’s campus.

DAY 3: MONDAY

Monday was the apex of our trip to Oak Ridge, as we planned to spend most of the day at the AMSE and the DOE Facilities Bus Tour. We headed to AMSE first thing to get on the “list” for the tour. We explored the exhibits on the Manhattan Project, including the 1940s Flattop House with original furnishings. The flattop house is one of the original houses used by the employees at Oak Ridge, moved and put on display at the museum.

Original flattop house on display at AMSE
Original flattop house on display at AMSE
Display on the Department of Energy's Section 106/historic preservation activities, inside AMSE.
A display at AMSE detailing the Department of Energy’s Section 106/historic preservation activities.

DOE Facilities Tour

The tour focused on the three major historic sites at Oak Ridge – Y-12, X-10, and K-25. Y-12 serves as a National Security Complex for the storage and maintenance of uranium in the United States. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into the facility, but we toured the New Hope Visitor Center which houses some of the original artifacts from Y-12. Historically, Y-12 served as a Electromagnetic Separation Plant producing enriched uranium.

After the brief stop at Y-12, we headed towards the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and X-10. On the way there, we stopped at the Bethel Valley Church. The congregation was founded in 1851 and the church & cemetery remain preserved, even through the World War II use of the reservation.

Bethel Valley Church
Bethel Valley Church

The next stop was the best of the entire day: the historic X-10 Graphite Reactor. Still housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the facility remains well preserved even though it ceased plutonium production during the 1960s. X-10 was the first permanent nuclear reactor after Enrico Fermi’s Chicago Pile. The interior has been spectacularly well preserved and we were able to spend some time exploring this National Historic Landmark. Here’s a selection of photos from the X-10 tour:

X-10 National Historic Landmark Plaque
X-10 National Historic Landmark Plaque
The interior of X-10, with the graphite reactor face on the right and the reactor control room on the left.
The interior of X-10, with the graphite reactor face on the right and the reactor control room on the left.
An overall shot of the graphite reactor face. The holes allowed the workers to push rods with uranium slugs into the graphite pile. The concrete walls act as a radiation shield, while the
An overall shot of the graphite reactor face. The holes allowed the workers to push rods with uranium slugs into the graphite pile. The concrete walls act as a radiation shield.
Sign for "PILE ON" - when the graphite reactor was operating.
Sign for “PILE ON” – when the graphite reactor was operating.
The log book for the reactor, open to the page where the reactor was first "Critically Reached."
The log book for the reactor, open to the page where the reactor was first “Critically Reached.”
Warning sign posted inside X-10
Warning sign posted inside X-10
Another historic sign inside X-10
Another historic sign inside X-10

After our time at X-10, we headed to the K-25 overlook that we had explored on Saturday. We drove around the perimeter of the K-25 site, now known as the East Tennessee Technology Park. K-25 served as the Gaseous Diffusion Plant and was a 44 acre U-shaped building. The building is currently being demolished, but we could still see a few sections of the original building from afar.

Viewing the former K-25 site
Viewing the former K-25 site

Visiting Oak Ridge gave me a lot to consider about non-traditional history and preservation. The majority of the historic buildings in Oak Ridge don’t necessarily fit the mold of what the average person might view as “historic” – there aren’t brick Italianates or large Classical Revival buildings. Considering Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1943 and many of the buildings are standard plan military type buildings, it is hard to visually understand the significance of the community. I think the tour really helped connect the dots and understand the vital role of the community during World War II. Overall, I encourage anyone with an interest in history to visit Oak Ridge and to support the Manhattan Project National Park. This trip taught me the challenge in considering non-traditional history & architecture in the preservation of American culture.

Standing in front of the X-10 graphite reactor face.
Standing in front of the X-10 graphite reactor face.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: