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Oak Ridge

Oak Ridge

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The facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, code named "Clinton Engineer Works," were part of The Manhattan Project. Project leaders did not know how quickly or how much of each they could produce, so they decided to produce both at the same time.The first mission at Oak Ridge was to design reactors that could produce plutonium. The reactor design was then supplied to the Hanford Reservation, where full-scale production was undertaken. Prior to this, separation of U-235 on an industrial scale had never been attempted.Some 60,000 acres of ridges and valleys that made up the area surrounding Oak Ridge was chosen as a major site for the Manhattan Project because of the close proximity to the new TVA dam at Norris, Tennessee. To most, this meant leaving behind land that had been in their families` possession for generations.Three huge facilities were built at the site to test three new techniques for separating the isotopes of uranium. Eventually, all three techniques developed at Oak Ridge contributed to the production of the necessary ingredients for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The speed and scale of the operations were staggering.Three methods existed for extracting U-235: the electromagnetic process, gaseous diffusion, and thermal diffusion. Each of the facilities was a gamble on a grand scale.General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, ordered that the first facility, code named Y-12, which was used for electromagnetic separation, be completed in less than six months. Later, the plant also played a key role in the production of thermonuclear weapons.The second plant, named K-25, built to house the gaseous diffusion process, consisted of 50 four-story buildings in a U-shape, measuring a half-mile by 1,000 feet, and covering more than 1,500 acres. When it was completed in March 1945, the K-25 facility was the largest building in the world under one roof.The third facility, S-50, was constructed in 90 days, and involved 2,142 columns, each more than 40 feet tall. That facility used thermal diffusion.The primary mission of the X-10 Graphite Reactor, built in just 11 months, was to demonstrate the production of plutonium from uranium in a reactor. The reactor operated from 1943 to 1963 and produced the first electricity from nuclear energy.Electric energy consumption, courtesy of the TVA, was 20 percent higher than that of New York City. J. Robert Oppenheimer decided to run the three in sequence rather than in parallel. A final pass through electromagnetic separation raised the concentration to 84 percent, which proved to be sufficient for a bomb.Oak Ridge, Tennessee, existed for seven years as a "secret city." The city grew to a population of 75,000 and was the fifth largest in Tennessee. It was not shown on any maps, did not allow any visitors other than by special approval, had guards posted at the entrances, and required all residents to wear badges at all times when outside their homes.Today, Oak Ridge is a thriving community. The site of the Graphite Reactor has been registered as a National Historic Landmark, and the control room and reactor face are accessible to visitors.After World War II ended and the Cold War began, K-25 continued to provide the U-235 required for nuclear weapons, reactors, and submarines until it was closed in 1985. Today, the American Museum of Science and Energy tells the story of the "Secret City" and its historic role in winning the war.

Oak Ridge History Museum

While the popular American Museum of Science and Energy tells the story of the Manhattan Project, it does so primarily from a scientific perspective. In contrast, the new Oak Ridge History Museum shines a light on the “human side” of the Manhattan Project, focusing on history and people’s day-to-day lives during World War II.

The Oak Ridge History Museum has received or purchased 100 items from the American Museum of Science and Energy, including a timeline of Oak Ridge’s history, a model of the United Church, Chapel on the Hill, and displays about the founding of Oak Ridge and Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves. The museum also contains the largest collection of original Ed Westcott photography available.

In addition to these items, the Oak Ridge History Museum will also showcase historical artifacts, some of which come from the private collection of the museum’s Co-Chairwoman Betty Stokes and her husband Lloyd. Artifacts that will be housed at the museum include vintage Boy Scout uniforms, badges, patches, newspapers, and pins.


On February 18, 1943, in the midst of the second World War, ground was broken in rural East Tennessee for the first production building at the Y‑12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant. The plant’s job was to make enough enriched uranium for a new kind of bomb, an atomic bomb.

In a short time Bear Creek Valley, where the plant is located, was filled with machinery and the bustle of people on a mission. At its peak in 1945, more than 22,000 workers were employed at the site. Thirty months later the success of Y‑12’s mission was announced to the world when after two atomic weapons (the uranium bomb, Little Boy, and the plutonium bomb, Fat Man) were detonated, the Empire of Japan surrendered and World War II ended. Y-12 had separated the uranium used in Little Boy.

Since that time Y‑12’s missions have changed. Y‑12 played a key part in the production of thermonuclear weapons, helping win the Cold War with 8,000 people working around the clock to produce nuclear weapon secondaries.

Today, Y‑12 is a unique national asset in the manufacture, processing and storage of special materials vital to our national security and contributes to the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The nuclear science in Oak Ridge that ultimately ended the war also led to innovative advancements in medicine that continue today.

Life at Oak Ridge

Materials were in short supply, so the first houses were built of prefabricated panels of cement and asbestos or cemesto board. They were known as “alphabet houses” because each of the handful of home designs was assigned a letter of the alphabet. There were small, two bedroom “A” houses, “C” houses with extra bedrooms, “D” houses with a dining room, and so forth for a total of 3,000 cemesto-type homes. Later, thousands of prefabricated houses were sent to Oak Ridge in sections complete with walls, floors, room partitions, plumbing and wiring. Workers turned over 30 or 40 houses to occupants each day. The Roane-Anderson Company administered all housing facilities.

Part of Oak Ridge’s appeal to Manhattan Project planners was nearby Knoxville with its population of 111,000. However, the top-secret project was not warmly welcomed in Knoxville, arousing both suspicion and resentment. Many saw the people flooding into East Tennessee from all over the country—and the world—as “furriners” who could not be questioned. In a time of austerity and rationing, others resented Oak Ridge residents arriving with unlimited ration stamps and fistfuls of cash. Oak Ridgers who ventured into Knoxville were easy to spot. The quickly constructed secret city was blanketed in a thick layer of mud. As a result, its residents’ muddy shoes were a dead giveaway as to their origin.

Location, location, location

As with all real estate, it’s location location location. And that’s exactly what Oak Ridge had to offer. Not only was it nestled deep in a valley, but there were also very few people who called the region home. That meant that the government bought the land super cheap. Adding to that, Oak Ridge is accessible by both road and land. Those are very important details when you’re trying to build the world’s deadliest bomb, which is exactly what happened with the Manhattan Project.

And since no one was living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and those who did weren’t too keen on asking questions, the government set up shop without a lot of fanfare or fuss.

By 1943, the region was officially a military district making it off-limits to anyone without confirmed access. Cut off from the rest of the state and country, Oak Ridge really was a complete and total secret. At least it was until the end of WWII. Now it’s still a hotbed site for tech and scientific development – but there aren’t any top-secret projects … that we know of.


The Oak Ridge Boys

One of the longest-running groups in country music, the Oak Ridge Boys started life as a gospel quartet before gradually modernizing their style and moving into secular country-pop. Yet even at the height of their popularity in the late '70s and early '80s -- when they were big enough to cross over to the pop charts -- their sound always remained deeply rooted in country gospel harmony. Their existence dates all the way back to World War II, circa 1942-1943, when a Knoxville, Tennessee group began performing gospel songs in nearby Oak Ridge, the home of an atomic bomb research facility. The group's members also performed in a larger aggregation called Wally Fowler & the Georgia Clodhoppers, who recorded for Capitol. However, lead singer Fowler decided to focus on gospel music in 1945. Dubbed the Oak Ridge Quartet, the group first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry that year and made their first recordings in 1947 with a lineup of Fowler, Lon "Deacon" Freeman, Curly Kinsey, and Johnny New.

Numerous personnel shifts ensued over the next few years, particularly in 1949 when the entire group split from Fowler at that point, he hired a completely different band, the Bob Weber-led Calvary Quartet, to assume the Oak Ridge name. With a core of Fowler and Weber, plus a revolving-door cast of supporting vocalists, the group became one of the top draws on the Southern gospel circuit, continuing to the end of 1956. At that point, Fowler disbanded the quartet and sold the name to group member Smitty Gatlin, who organized a new lineup in early 1957. In 1961, Gatlin changed their name to the Oak Ridge Boys, made them a full-time professional act, and started to modernize their sound on record with fuller arrangements and elements of country and folk. Future mainstay William Lee Golden joined as the group's baritone vocalist in 1964, and when Gatlin retired to become a full-time minister two years later, the group, acting on Golden's recommendation, hired ex-Southernairs singer Duane Allen as his replacement on lead vocals.

With bass singer Noel Fox and tenor singer Willie Wynn, the Oak Ridge Boys continued to broaden their appeal by adapting their sound to the times, adding a drummer to their backing band and incorporating bits of pop and even rock into their country-gospel style. As a result, they grew into one of the most popular gospel acts of the late '60s, despite purist criticism over their secular influences and long-haired image. They even won their first Grammy in 1970 for "Talk About the Good Times." Fox and Wynn were replaced by Richard Sterban (ex-Keystone Quartet) and Philadelphia native Joe Bonsall in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and this lineup would remain intact for the next decade-and-a-half. In 1973, they recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family called "Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup," which brought them their first appearance on the country charts. In 1975, they opened a series of tour dates for Roy Clark, whose manager was highly impressed and encouraged them to try their hand at secular country.

The Oak Ridge Boys signed with Columbia later that year but found the initial transition a rough one: they split their time between country and gospel, and without a strong identity their sales dropped. The resulting financial problems nearly forced them to disband, and a discouraged Columbia gave up on them after their 1976 single, "Family Reunion," barely charted, even though labelmate Paul Simon had tapped them to sing backup on his hit "Slip Slidin' Away." Fortunately, they got another chance with MCA and scored a breakout Top Five hit in 1977 with "Y'all Come Back Saloon," the title song from their label debut. The follow-up, "You're the One," reached number two, and their next album, 1978's Room Service, gave them their first number one hit in "I'll Be True to You" as well as two more Top Five hits in "Cryin' Again" and "Come on In."

Thus established as country hitmakers, the Oak Ridge Boys embarked on a run of chart success that would last through the '80s. Golden stopped cutting his hair and beard altogether, giving the group a hugely recognizable visual signature, as well. They hit number one again in 1980 with "Trying to Love Two Women," but it was the following year that would make them a genuine phenomenon. Their recording of "Elvira," an obscure, doo wop-style novelty song from the '60s, became a major, Grammy-winning crossover smash. Not only did it hit number one on the country charts, but its infectious "oom-pop-a-mow-mow" bass vocal hook boosted it into the Top Five on the pop charts. Its accompanying album, Fancy Free, became their first to top the country charts, not to mention their biggest seller to date. The title cut of their chart-topping 1982 follow-up, Bobbie Sue, also went number one country and nearly made the pop Top Ten as well. American Made's title track also topped the charts in 1983, as did its follow-up, "Love Song." In early 1984, Deliver became their third number one country album and landed two more number one singles that year with "Everyday" and "I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes." 1985 brought three number ones: "Little Things," "Make My Life with You," and "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend."

The Oak Ridge Boys' sales began to slow a bit in the latter half of the '80s, but they still produced big hits with regularity. They hit number one in 1987 ("It Takes a Little Rain," "This Crazy Love"), 1988 ("Gonna Take a Lot of River"), and 1990 ("No Matter How High"), giving them a total of 16 career country chart-toppers (and 29 Top Ten hits). However, by that point, the group's longtime lineup had split -- Golden, whose mountain-man appearance was increasingly supported by his rugged lifestyle, was given the boot in 1987 in an attempt to remake the group's image. He was replaced by longtime backing-band guitarist Steve Sanders and sued his former bandmates, eventually settling out of court. In 1991, the Oak Ridge Boys parted ways with MCA and signed with RCA, but after just two albums, it was apparent that their commercial prime had passed, and the relationship ended. The group returned to traditional-style country gospel on occasion during the '90s and continued to tour.

Meanwhile, Sanders' marital problems worsened, causing him to leave the group in late 1995 Golden and the other members resolved their differences, and he returned at their New Year's Eve show that year they still performed often, notably in Branson, Missouri. Sadly, Sanders shot and killed himself in 1998. Fox, who moved on to run the group's publishing arm and later became a high-ranking music executive, passed away in April 2003. The group, with its classic '70s lineup of Sterban, Bonsall, Golden, and Allen, released a new studio album, The Boys Are Back, which featured reimagined versions of songs by John Lee Hooker, Neil Young, and the White Stripes, in 2009. The Oak Ridge Boys turned their focus on recording spiritual albums for Gaither Music Group, but would continue to perform secular shows, including one for a 40th anniversary celebration in 2013. The Oak Ridge Boys were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Early 2018 saw the release of the single "Brand New Star" ahead of the arrival of the Dave Cobb-produced full-length 17th Avenue Revival, which dropped later that March. The following year, the band also pegged Cobb to produce their eighth holiday set, Down Home Christmas.

Thank you!

Many of these women had never left their rural homes before and enjoyed living together in dormitories in this makeshift city, full of other young people. The Army provided them with recreation centers, roller rinks and cinemas, and quite a few people met their future spouses while working in Oak Ridge on the Manhattan Project. The Calutron operators only found out the purpose of their jobs when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, made from material they had helped to create. Soon after, most of them left Y-12, as operations dramatically scaled down with the end of the war and more effective methods of uranium enrichment were developed.

The Calutron Girls&rsquo story gripped me, and I began researching a novel about them because I wanted to bring the history of those young women to life. I wish I had known their story when I was younger. Growing up, I sought out stories about women, not just in literature, but also in history. Those stories weren&rsquot always easy to find. The history of wars particularly bored me, because it was always about men. I found it alienating, because I couldn&rsquot picture myself as part of it. As I got older, I learned to project my imagination outside my own gender, as girls must do sooner or later to engage with the world. But even as my appreciation for male narratives grew, I began asking questions about what was often missing from those stories. After all, in times of war, half the population is still female. I wanted to learn about D-Day. But I also wanted to learn about the home front.

Happily, the stories of the people in the background of the great men are being told in more ways than when I was growing up. The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000 in Richmond, Calif., to preserve the legacy of the U.S. civilians who contributed to the war effort from home, and, as its name suggests, the park pays special attention to the women who played a critical role in the wartime labor force. And the World War II Memorial, which opened on the mall in Washington D.C. in 2004, is not only the usual monument to fallen soldiers, but also an explicit commemoration of the sacrifices made by civilians at home.

Their stories are vital to fully understanding World War II, as well as being fascinating. If Americans want to truly understand our history, we must take the time to learn about the people, so often female, in the background of the official narratives. And we owe it those women to tell our daughters&mdashand sons&mdashabout them, not just during Women&rsquos History Month but anytime we teach them about the past. I want my daughter to grow up in a world where we tell women&rsquos stories just as often and passionately as we have always told men&rsquos.

All history is women&rsquos history. Sometimes we just have to look a little deeper to find it. Behind the Oppenheimers and Roosevelts are hundreds of young women sitting in front of panels, staring at meters, adjusting dials &mdash living their lives and changing the world.

Challenges of Displacement

As in Hanford, the government’s compensation for the land was insufficient. The Washington Post reported that Curtis Allen Hendrix, the son of the so-called “Prophet of Oak Ridge,” only received $850 from the U.S. government for his sixty-acre farm. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average farm real estate value in 1942 for the forty-eight contiguous states was $34 per acre. At this price, sixty acres would have been valued at $1,920, about 2.25 times more than what Hendrix was compensated.

Hendrix’s story matches that of Holmberg. She shared, “They didn’t pay enough to replace the type of place that you had. We were very poorly paid for the land, and also we had a lot of people who were looking for land, so that made it hard.”

Farm House - Early Oak Ridge in 1942

Displaced residents were also challenged by the logistics of relocating to another area. As Smith explained in his interview, “Many of them did not have automobiles. They did not have trucks to move their belongings. If they had an automobile, they might not be able to buy gas for it or tires. Those things were rationed.” Even though relocating was inconvenient and challenging, Smith remarked that residents were willing to quickly vacate their properties in order to help the war effort.

According to author Denise Kiernan, this was the “the third time that some families had to move. They had to move for the Great Smoky National Park, they had to move for the Norris Dam, and they had to move for Oak Ridge when it was constructed.” In These Are Our Voices: The Story of Oak Ridge, 1942 – 1970, John Rice Irwin noted that his family had moved to the Robertsville area after the Norris Dam flood. Citing his family’s limited time in the future Oak Ridge area, Irwin recalled: “While we knew well the distress of our neighbors, we ourselves were not as adversely affected” (Overholt, ed., 21). Regarding his neighbors, Irwin explained that it is important to “understand the cultural and ancestral roots to which rural folk become attached to the land after a few generations in order to understand the shock which results from such uprooting” (Overholt, ed., 21).

Many of the residents eventually came to work at the Oak Ridge facility. Holmberg said that she, her parents and grandparents all eventually worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. While she and her family moved about six miles outside of Oak Ridge to Oliver Springs, Holmberg recalled other people settling all around Clinton, Norris, and Knoxville. These three cities are about fourteen, twenty, and twenty-five miles from Oak Ridge, respectively.

Additionally, Oak Ridgers who came from high education, urban areas and wealthier backgrounds sometimes looked down on the local people. Holmberg remembered, “A lot of people made remarks about the hillbillies who lived there, and it was kind of bad to have to listen to that. And it is true that not too many people went to college. But there were eighteen people in my high school class, and I think, out of that, about four of them went to college, which was a pretty good number.” Holmberg studied at the University of Tennessee before she began to work at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge.



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Watch the video: Oak Ridge Tennessee The Early Years (May 2022).