I have to admit I learned about the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in a most peculiar way. Was it because I was born and raised in Tennessee? You’d think so, but no.
Was it because I went to college just 20 minutes away from Oak Ridge? Still, in fact, no. Instead, it was during a trip to Target almost twenty years later.
Absolutely by chance, a book on the sale rack caught my eye. The book was called The Girls of Atomic City and the tagline read: “The untold story of the women who helped win World War II.” When I flipped it over and saw the events took place in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—a town I’d definitely heard of as it was the home of my college roommate—I knew I had to read it.
Earlier this year I had a few extra days to kill in central Tennessee and knew it was time to finally make a trip to the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge.
A little bit about Oak Ridge, Tennessee
It turns out the book was about how Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a full-scale city built from nothing and in the middle of nowhere, staffed by tens of thousands of women, became one of the most important locales in history.
As one of only three Manhattan Project sites, it was here in Oak Ridge where key components of the war-ending atomic bomb were built. Specifically, Oak Ridge is where the uranium used as fuel for the bombs was “enriched.”
On enriching uranium: Only a teeny tiny percentage (0.7%) of natural uranium is able to be used for creating nuclear energy. Uranium “enrichment” is the process of increasing that percentage through a variety of methods including gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation.
More usable uranium = more boom.
The entire city of Oak Ridge was built for the purposes of the Manhattan Project, in total secrecy, well-hidden, and even those working on the bomb hadn’t a clue of what they were building.
No one outside of town knew what was going on beyond the guard gates and no one could have predicted how the entire world would be changed by the work taking place in this tiny Appalachian town–a town built from scratch for one monumental purpose.
What was the Manhattan Project?
The Manhattan Project was the top secret research and development endeavor that resulted in the production of the world’s first nuclear weapons. Among them, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan to end World War II.
Despite its name, the Manhattan Project actually took place in many sites around the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, with three primary locations: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Key Manhattan Project Figures include:
- Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as project director
- Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer
- Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann who discovered nuclear fission
- Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch who theorized an atomic bomb
- Enrico Fermi, Italian-American physicist who created the world’s first nuclear reactor
- Even Albert Einstein played a part in the Manhattan Project–signing a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning him what would happen if the Germans developed nuclear weapons first.
- And, oh, about 120,000 others.
Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge
Even though the purpose of the Oak Ridge factories was fulfilled in 1945, it remains a thriving town to this day. Some of the Oak Ridge Manhattan Project sites are long gone, while some still operate on a massive scale (with different objectives at hand, more or less).
There are schools and restaurants, parks and banks. By all accounts it’s just like any other small town.
However, there are still a number of original sites you can visit, and some newer yet related developments as well. Be sure to check them all out–you can even do so in just one day.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Oak Ridge from Nashville, be aware that the time changes from Central to Eastern Time Zone between exits 340 and 341 on I-40. Because #4 on this list is a strictly timed event, this is a very important tidbit! Don’t show up an hour late for your tour.
Start at the American Museum of Science and Energy
The American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) was established in 1949 as a way to provide the general public with information on energy science.
Today, you can learn all about nuclear energy, uranium, technological developments, and, of course, how that all played a part in the Manhattan Project. And because it was established for the “general public,” the science isn’t all too technical.
Here you can explore a museum of interactive exhibits, hands-on demonstrations, and hear presentations on a variety of related subjects presented by the National Park Service.
I say to start here because of all the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge, the next one is the most important. (Plus, the low cost of taking the tour I’m about to mention gets you free admission into the AMSE!)
Take the DOE bus tour
The Department of Energy bus tour to the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge you can still visit today is the main attraction of the city and its atomic history.
However, it’s not all history. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is still the home of the United States Department of Energy–the federal agency responsible for all things related to nuclear energy, nuclear weaponry, and nuclear waste (et al).
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and, today, is the largest science and energy lab within the U.S. Department of Energy. Research here focuses on neutron science, high-performance computing, materials and energy, systems biology, and issues of national security. You can visit on official business but you’ll only drive by some of the sites on the DOE bus tour.
And in the spirit of educating us, the general public, the Department of Energy hosts guided bus tours to Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge led by former employees of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
On these AMSE Oak Ridge tours yours you’ll visit:
The American Museum of Science and Energy
It’s true – you’ve already been here. But the reason I said to start here is because this is where you’ll catch your Department of Energy bus. Because admission to the museum is included in your bus tour, you might as well check it out while waiting for your bus. (They open early specifically for those taking the tour!)
Y-12 National Security Complex
Next on your DOE bus tour is the Y-12 National Security Complex. This building is considered the birthplace of the atomic bomb and was the location used for enriching uranium through electromagnetic processes. It was here they collected the usable uranium that was used as fuel for Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
New Hope Visitor Center
You will get to go inside the Y-12 National Security Complex, but not all that far being that it’s still a top-secret government facility and all. Inside you’ll get to spend some time in the New Hope Visitor Center where you’ll see examples of how this building played an important part in so many scientific advances.
You’ll also get to listen to a couple of presentations that cover the history of Oak Ridge and help explain what uranium enrichment is all about from some current and former employees.
Before your visit to Oak Ridge, be sure to read The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan. This book tells the entirely true history of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II–why it was chosen for the Manhattan Project, what kind of work took place here, and so much more. Many of the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge you’ll visit feature prominently in this book.
The Spallation Neutron Source
You’ll drive by the Spallation Neutron Source, part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but you won’t get to go in. Science… important… top-secret things.
To sum up, the Spallation Neutron Source is an “accelerator-based facility that provides the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world.” According to this article on neutron science at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, neutrons are a pretty big (but really, really tiny) deal.
X-10 Graphite Reactor
The X-10 Graphite Reactor is the world’s oldest nuclear reactor and a National Historic Landmark. A lot of highly technical stuff took place here but, to summarize, its main goal was to work really hard at getting plutonium isotopes from uranium… and it worked.
FYI: The first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on 8/6/1945, was a uranium bomb. The second and much more powerful bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 8/9/1945, was a plutonium bomb.
You’ll be allowed a generous amount of time in this building where you can learn all about how to get plutonium from uranium (since you were wondering), explore the building on your own, check out the old offices, etc.
The former K-25 building site
At the time of its construction in 1944, the K-25 building was the largest building in the entire world, coming in at an unreal 1.64 million square feet. (And somehow no one outside this town even knew it existed.)
The K-25 building at one time was the main location of the Manhattan Project’s work on uranium enrichment. While the Y-12 focused on enriching uranium through electromagnetic means, K-25 revolved around gaseous diffusion.
Unfortunately, the K-25 building was completely demolished in 2013, but on your DOE bus tour you will visit the now very large construction site where you’ll learn all about it.
Before your visit to Oak Ridge, be sure to read Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly. This book focuses on the war in the Pacific and, specifically, how America contributed to ending it. You’ll learn a lot about the two atomic bombs (in an easy-to-understand fashion), the events that led up to them, and what happened as a result.
Things to know before exploring these Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge
The Department of Energy bus tour of Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge is really the city’s biggest attraction, especially among World War II enthusiasts such as yourself.
Most of the sites I’ve mentioned can only be visited on the DOE bus tour so it’s absolutely worth reserving your spot. Before you do so, you should know:
- DOE bus tours cost $8 and are limited to 32 people (I guess they just have the one bus).
- DOE bus tours are offered only during March through November. Depending on which month you visit Oak Ridge will determine which day of the week you can take the tour. Check the DOE bus tour page to see which days will be available for you.
- To take a DOE bus tour you must be at least ten years old and a U.S. citizen with a current photo ID.
- The DOE tour bus boards at 11:15 am for the 11:30 tours and they last until 2:30.
- To take a DOE bus tour, you can either register online ahead of time or just show up. HOWEVER, only 16 spots are available for online pre-registration and online registration opens a month ahead of time. The 16 spots left are first come, first served beginning at 9 am on the day of the tour.
Is Oak Ridge radioactive? For the typical, short-term visitor? No. But some government-sponsored testing suggests that Oak Ridge (and nearby towns) suffers an increased mortality rate due to low levels of radiation ingested gradually over time. You can read all about that in this International Journal of Health Services report.
The Secret City Commemorative Walk
The Secret City Commemorative Walk is a pleasant little tree-lined pathway that helps explain the timeline of Oak Ridge. It features 10 bronze plaques that each tell part of the story of how this city helped in putting an end to the war.
The walk will take you just about 15 minutes and is located at one end of A.K. Bissell Park. The area also features four “Founder Walls” that seek to honor some of the pioneer Oak Ridgers and an American flag previously flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Also check out: this complete guide to World War II Sites in Washington DC (+ Arlington, VA) You Shouldn’t Miss covers a ton of museums, World War II memorials and monuments, and much more!
The International Friendship Bell
At the other end of A.K. Bissell Park you’ll find the brand new Peace Pavilion and, within it, the International Friendship Bell.
The International Friendship Bell is an 8,000-pound bronze bell featuring images meant to represent friendship and peace between the United States and Japan. It also contains the dates of the attack on Pearl Harbor, VJ Day, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was created by a renowned bell maker from Kyoto named Sotetsu Iwazawa and officially dedicated in May of 1996. The idea for the bell came when, on a research trip to the Japan Atomic Energy Institute in 1987, Dr. Ram Uppuluri and his wife–natives of Japan but residents of Oak Ridge–were inspired by the bonshō bell at a nearby Buddhist temple.
Previously, the bell was only allowed to be rung three times a day between 6 and 6:15 PM, but today you can ring the bell at any time of day, as many times as you like.
Fun Fact: You can find another Japanese bell in Boston, Massachusetts with an equally interesting WWII story.
Oak Ridge History Museum
Just across the main road from the International Friendship Bell is the Oak Ridge History Museum, located inside the Midtown Community Center, itself a relic from the 1940s.
It’s a small museum only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, but is great at showcasing the history of Oak Ridge through a variety of exhibits.
While part of the museum focuses on the science and the Manhattan Project, a brand new exhibit now showcases the “human side” of life within the Manhattan Project–focusing on day-to-day life for those working in Oak Ridge during World War II.
Through this museum you can even arrange a special WWII guided tour of the Secret City of Oak Ridge. The Oak Ridge History Museum just opened in the summer of 2019.
Historic Jackson Square
Though Oak Ridge was a city built for one specific purpose, they soon realized the need to offer regular “city things” to its residents. Think: movie theaters, restaurants, and other such hangouts.
When the population of Oak Ridge reached its height of 75,000 residents, Jackson Square was the social center of it all.
Because of the non-stop work schedules of Oak Ridge residents, Jackson Square was the town hot-spot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Today, it’s a modest collection of quaint shops, a restaurant, a theater, and a weekly farmers market. Under the portico you will find a display containing photos of what Jackson Square looked like in the 1940s.
You might like: Be sure to check out my post on unique WWII hotels and Airbnbs – it includes an awesome place to stay right here in Oak Ridge!
Across the street from Jackson Square stands the Alexander Inn, formerly known as the Guest House. Built during the Manhattan Project and now found on the National Register of Historic Places, this building was used as the guest house for visitors on official business like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer. Today this building serves as a senior living center.
Manhattan Project National Historical Park Visitor Center
The Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge make up the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, part of the National Park Service. You can visit the MP National Historical Park visitor center which is located inside the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.
Here you can speak with National Park rangers, get your National Parks passport stamped, and check out a shop full of books and mementos from the area. You can also pick up a brochure and a large map featuring all the Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge.
Located the farthest outside of Oak Ridge Center is Norris Dam (best visited on your way in or out of Oak Ridge). Located in the nearby town of Rocky Top, Tennessee (a real place I assure you), Norris Dam was built between 1933 and 1936. It is a hydroelectric dam that spans the Clinch River at 265 feet high and 1,860 feet across.
Norris Dam controls flooding by helping to store water; and when that water is released it generates electricity. And the biggest consumer of the electricity created at Norris Dam are the atomic plants in nearby Oak Ridge.
Norris Dam is also on the National Register of Historic Places and includes a visitor center as well as a scenic overlook.
For more on Oak Ridge, Tennessee
…like where to find the best lunch in town, where to stay in Oak Ridge, and a handy-dandy video I made on the subject, check out the article on my other site: 7 Ways to Spend a Day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
More info for visiting Manhattan Projects sites in Oak Ridge
- Heading to Oak Ridge? Find great places to stay and book your room here!
- Need a rental car? Check out the best TN rental car deals here.
- Don’t forget to pick up a Tennessee guidebook for the rest of your TN sightseeing
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