The Bethel Valley Checking Station
In 1942, the United States Federal Government chose the area as a site for developing materials for the Manhattan Project. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, liked the area for several reasons. Its relatively low population made acquisition affordable, yet the area was accessible by both highway and rail, and utilities such as water and electricity were readily available due to the recent completion of Norris Dam. Finally, the project location was established within a 17-mile (27-km) long valley, and the valley itself was linear and partitioned by several ridges, providing natural protection against disasters between the four major industrial plants—so they wouldn’t blow up “like firecrackers on a string.”
Workers leaving the Manhattan Project’s Y-12 plant at shift changing time, 1945 (US government photo by Ed Westcott)
The location and low population also helped keep the town a secret, though the population of the settlement grew from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945, and the K-25 uranium-separating facility by itself covered 44 acres (0.178 km²) and was the largest building in the world at that time. The name “Oak Ridge” was chosen for the settlement in 1943 from among suggestions submitted by project employees, in part because of the settlement’s location along Black Oak Ridge, and in part because the rural-sounding name “held outside curiosity to a minimum.” The name wasn’t formally adopted until 1949, however, and was only referred to as the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). All workers wore badges, and the town was surrounded by guard towers and a fence with seven gates.
Beginning in late 1942, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring more than 60,000 acres (240 km²) for the CEW under authority of the Corps’Manhattan Engineer District (MED). The K-25, S-50, and Y-12 plants were each built in Oak Ridge to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from natural uranium, which consists almost entirely of the isotope uranium-238. During construction of the magnets which were required for the process that would separate the uranium at the Y-12 site, a shortage of copper forced the MED to borrow 14,700 tons of silver bullion from the United States Treasury to be used for electrical conductors for the electromagnet coils as a substitute. The X-10 site, now the location of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was established as a pilot plant for production of plutonium using the Graphite Reactor.
Because of the large number of workers recruited to the area for the Manhattan Project, the Army planned a town for project workers at the eastern end of the valley. The time required for the project’s completion caused the Army to opt for a relatively permanent establishment rather than a camp of enormous size.
The architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) was contracted to provide a layout for the town and house designs. SOM PartnerJohn O. Merrill moved to Tennessee to take charge of designing the secret buildings at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He directed the creation of a town, which soon had 300 miles of roads, 55 miles of railroad track, ten schools, seven theaters, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, and 13 supermarkets. A library with 9,400 books, a symphony orchestra, sporting facilities, church services for 17 denominations, and a Fuller Brush Company salesman served the new city and its 75,000 residents. Prefabricated modular homes, apartments, and dormitories, many made from cemesto (bonded cement and asbestos) panels, were quickly erected. Streets were laid out in the manner of a “planned community.”
The original streets included several main east-to-west roads, namely the Oak Ridge Turnpike, Tennessee Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Hillside Road, Robertsville Road, and Outer Drive. North-to-south oriented streets connecting these main roads were designated “Avenues,” and streets branching off from the avenues were designated “Roads,” “Places,” “Lanes,” or “Circles.” “Roads” connected two streets, while “Lanes” and “Places” were dead ends. The names of the main avenues generally progressed alphabetically from east to west (e.g., Alabama Avenue in the east, Vermont Avenue in the west), and the names of the smaller streets began with the same letter as the main avenue from they started (e.g., streets connected to Florida Avenue began with “F”). This made it considerably easier for the city’s new residents to find each other.
Housing for families was constructed according to a series of templates, identified by letters. Thus an “A” house was the smallest lettered design, with one bedroom. A “B” house featured two bedrooms, a “D” house three bedrooms with a larger living space, an “E” was a two-story four-unit structure, and an “F” was the largest type home. The smallest homes were called “flat tops”; originally intended to be only temporary structures, they proliferated atop the ridges in the west end of town.
More spacious homes were awarded by the government based upon family size and the status of the worker. If a couple became divorced, they would usually be “demoted” in terms of their housing allocation, and a worker who became unemployed would usually lose his or her home altogether.
Oak Ridge was developed by the federal government as a segregated community. Black residents lived only in an area known as Gamble Valley and lived predominantly in government-built “hutments” (one-room shacks) on the south side of what is now Tuskegee Drive. Oak Ridge elementary education prior to 1954 was totally segregated; black children could only attend the Scarboro Elementary School. Oak Ridge High School was closed to black children, who had to be bussed out to Knoxville for an education. Starting in 1950, Scarboro High School operated for African American students at Scarboro Elementary School. It operated until Oak Ridge High School was desegregated in the fall of 1955. In 1953, an abortive attempt had made by the Oak Ridge Town Council to encourage the desegregation of Oak Ridge High School; this resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to recall one of the Council members, Waldo Cohn. It took the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to change the federal government’s stance in this matter. After the Brown decision, the nearby high school in Clinton was desegregated in the fall of 1956 and later bombed, closing it down. Oak Ridge then provided space at a recently vacated elementary school building (the original Linden Elementary School) for the education of high school students from Clinton for two years while Clinton High Schoolwas being rebuilt. Robertsville Junior High School, serving the west half of Oak Ridge, was desegregated at the same time as the high school. Elementary schools in other parts of the city and Jefferson Junior High School, serving the east half of the city, were desegregated slowly as African American families moved into housing outside of Gamble Valley until, in 1967, Scarboro Elementary School was closed and African American Students from Gamble Valley were bused to other schools around the city. In the years after the Brown decision, public accommodations in Oak Ridge were also integrated, although this took a number of years. In the early 1960s, Oak Ridge experienced briefly protest picketing against racial segregation in public accommodations, notably outside a local cafeteria and a laundromat.
Construction personnel swelled the wartime population of Oak Ridge to as much as 70,000. That dramatic population increase, and the secret nature of the project, meant chronic shortages of housing and supplies during the war years. The town was administered by Turner Construction Company through a subsidiary named the Roane-Anderson Company. For most residents, however, their “landlord” was known as “MSI” (Management Services, Inc.).
The news of the use of the first atomic bomb against Japan on August 6, 1945 revealed to the people at Oak Ridge what they had been working on.