Posted by: Mickey Goodman | December 4, 2010

No More Secrets in the Secret City – Oak Ridge, TN

The Oak Ridge Story

I have only fleeting memories of WWII. Crying for my dad, an Air Force captain who was flying the Hump (Himalayas). No gas for our car or butter and sugar for the table.  Scores of  men in uniforms. But one image seared in memory is a poster warning of the dire consequences of aiding and abetting the enemy —  “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

How different things are today! Could the Allies have won the war after the’s chief snitch blabbed military and diplomatic secrets all over the internet? And what fate would he have received 65 years ago?

Methinks he would be serving time for treason.

The internet leaks and the  “loose lips” poster were both on my mind when I visited Oak Ridge, Tenn., a secret city built in 1942 for the purpose of enriching uranium for an atomic bomb — and beating the Germans to the technology. The city sprung up seemingly overnight, and within 18 months, the population had swelled to 75,000. Yet, the community tucked into the east Tennessee mountains didn’t appear on any map.

In fact, what went on within its fenced and patrolled confines was known only by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his closest advisers and a handful of the world’s best scientists. Vice President Harry S. Truman and members of Congress were completely in the dark. So were the workers who did their jobs without knowing how they fit into the big picture. Even its designation, the Manhattan Project, named after the New York architectural firm that designed it, was an enigma.

Replica of the Atomic Bomb

When President Truman assumed the presidency after FDR’s sudden death, he was stunned to learn of Oak Ridge’s existence and its mission. Ironically, the  responsibility of making the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell on his shoulders. After much deliberation, President Truman decided that it was vitally important to bring the country that attacked Pearl Harbor to its knees, and thus save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who would be lost during an invasion of Japanese invasion. Though controversy still surrounds that difficult decision, there is no doubt that the atomic bombs sealed the Allie’s victory and brought World War II to a close.

Today, the Secret City is open for tours and seeing the massive buildings with mysterious names like X-10 (now Oakridge National Laboratory) and Y-12 where U-235 was separated from U-238 in a laborious process, was fascinating. Instead of producing weapons for war, Oak Ridge is now repository for war-grade uranium and re-purposing it for  nuclear power plants and nuclear medicine.

So Much to See, So Little Time

Home for Family of Four

Beyond the Secret City, Oak Ridge offers  a kaleidoscope of exploration opportunities. At The American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE), I flitted from one interactive display to another, watching my friend Rebecca’s hair stand on end, touching, feeling, doing, reading, studying. If science had been taught this way when I was a kid, I would have a totally different mindset about the subject!

Behind the museum is an actual Flat Top house – one of thousands of bare bones structures hastily erected for Oak Ridge workers. Houses were assigned according to the size of the family and had space for only the bare essentials. Married couples with no children were sometimes housed in different dormitories or “hutments.”

The Museum of Appalachia

Mark Twain's Parent's Cabin

In stark contrast to the advanced technology displayed at AMSE, the Museum of Appalachia transported me into Daniel Boone’s world. This amazing collection of historic log cabins was amassed by John Rice Irwin who began traveling into remote areas of Appalachia more than half a century ago. Bent on preserving a fading way of life, he purchased thousands of objects from the mountain people, including their deserted log cabins.

From Irwin’s enormous personal collection emerged a living village where I walked through the log cabin where Mark Twain was likely conceived, stood mouth-agape in Daniel Boone’s cabin and peered into jail cells, smokehouses and school houses. Every cabin is situated along trails set into the beautiful natural surroundings of Norris, Tenn.

Green McAdoo Cultural Center

The Clinton , TN 12

In the deep south, the story of the Civil Rights movement wasn’t pretty. It was particularly ugly in Clinton where 12 gutsy black teenagers – the first to desegregate a state-supported high school — changed the world.

On the exterior of the Center, life-size bronze statues bring the students to life. Inside, I took my seat at a  classroom desk to learn more about how the 1956 Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) to desegregate all public schools was carried out in Clinton.

At first, the white students and parents accepted the black students without incident. It wasn’t until outsiders incited riots that chaos ensued. When a local Baptist minister came to the defense of the students (and upheld Supreme Court decision), he was badly beaten by white supremacists who, in an act of terror and intimidation, bombed the high school.  Their actions didn’t halt the progress of equality. A week later, the integrated student body took up residence in an abandoned elementary building.

Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

This labyrinth of a museum housed in a 50s era elementary is as appropriate for pre-schoolers as it is for older kids.  It’s also a place of discovery for adults.  Hundreds of interactive displays are tucked into a rabbit-warren configuration of former classrooms. Highlights include a gy-normous electric train set is a magnet for all ages. Kid-size doll houses, castles, forts and more lure pre-schoolers in. A straight-forward explanation of the Manhattan Project with photographs helps older children understand the history of Oak Ridge.

Travelgram Tips:

  • For lessons not easily found in books, take the kids.
  • There are no 5-Star hotels in the area, but the Comfort Inn, Doubletree Hotel and Hampton Inn are top of the line.
  • For great food and gorgeous views, don’t miss Flatwater Grill on Melton Hill Lake.
  • Other eclectic (and tasty) eateries include the Sequoyah Marina, the Jefferson Soda Fountain, Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Lab and Kitchen and the Soup Kitchen.


  1. I grew up in Oak Ridge, TN! Don’t forget to try Big Ed’s Pizza, as well. It’s an Oak Ridge staple.

    There is also an excursion train in the city that you should check out, as well as the Graphite Reactor.

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