Southeast Vacation: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Oak Ridge TN Graphite Reactor

After leaving the home of William Howard Taft, it was southward through Kentucky, and then on to Tennessee.

Rocky Top TN sign

Knowing my fascination with the quirky, it’s probably no surprise that I had to snap a photo of the sign pointing out Rocky Top. It’s where the reality TV Bates family (friends of the Duggars) lives (and for the record, no, we didn’t go by the house … darn).

Our next stop was Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the atomic bomb was developed during WWII. Since I had found Los Alamos, NM, so fascinating on an earlier trip, and since Oak Ridge and Los Alamos played somewhat similar roles in the ’40s (both were part of what the government dubbed “The Manhattan Project”) I knew this would be interesting as well.

We visited the American Museum of Science and Engineering, which detailed the city’s history during that era. Out front, there was a sculpture made from steel salvaged from the World Trade Center Buildings after 9/11.

sculpture from 9/11 steel

Inside the museum, I learned that the government had bought up land in the area cheaply during the ’40s for the purposes of building a “secret city” where scientists could work to develop a bomb. The Oak Ridge location was chosen because it was sparsely populated, yet was accessible by rail and highway, and utilities were readily available too. Once the government began putting up houses and buildings at breakneck speed, the population grew from 3,000 to 75,000 between 1942 and 1945. “Oak Ridge” did not exist on maps of the time, despite being the 5th largest city in the state.

Oak Ridge WWII Manhattan Project house

There was an actual example of the type housing many in Oak Ridge lived in at the time. It was small, but probably fairly typical for the ’40s?

Oak Ridge Lab tour bus

We got on a bus with several others for a 3-hour tour (no, not to Gilligan’s Island …). The tour was free, while admission to the museum was just $5 for each adult, $3 for kids. Must be subsidized by the government. The tour was very thorough, and the guy who led it had worked as a “health physicist” (never heard of that career before) for decades at Oak Ridge, beginning in the 50s. He was 80, but did a great job telling us all about the place, and I real quickly realized that much of this tour was going to go right over my head.

Oak Ridge National Lab facilities

Overlooking buildings at Oak Ridge National Labs

We drove by many of the buildings that were either built during the WWII era, or afterwards (the Lab is still in operation). Our guide told us a lot, but honestly the details escape me. Maybe that is appropriate, though, because he said that most of the people working here in WWII weren’t told the big picture regarding what they were doing, either. They had their specific duties, but only a very few knew that they were working toward building a bomb, right up until the day it was dropped. Kind of made me wonder how many things our government is currently doing without the knowledge of most of us.

Oak Ridge TN Graphite Reactor

We went inside a building (couldn’t take any photos outside, but could inside … not sure why?). It housed this huge “graphite reactor,” and again, I wish I could tell you in an easy way the significance of this. It was instrumental in making plutonium, which was used in making the bomb. It was emphasized that there was such urgency to come up with a bomb FAST, before Germany or Japan could. Sure, there had to be some mixed feelings about working to create something that would kill so many. Then again, if we hadn’t been first, and Germany or Japan had, and had used that bomb on us … well, use your imagination.


In one of the buildings, a guide recommended The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (affil. link) to us. I also saw it in the bookstore there. I’ve put it on hold at the library, and am looking forward to learning more about everyday life at Oak Ridge through it. As much as I’d like to wax philosophic to you over fission, fusion, uranium, and whatever else, I’m honestly a lot more interested in what life there was like for the loyal housewife or the kids who grew up there during the war.

Oak Ridge WWII library kids

For instance, I loved this photo from the museum. It shows kids in Oak Ridge during the ’40s, checking out books from a mobile library that visited.

Have you ever visited a Manhattan Project site? Can you enlighten us further about plutonium? 🙂 Sound off in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Southeast Vacation: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

  1. If a lot of the destination went over YOUR head, I know I’d have been sunk. I know very little about any of this. I love how you tell us about this through the eyes of a mother/woman. Women play a vital role keeping the home fires burning!

  2. We go to church in Oak Ridge and live about 20 minutes from there! How cool that you were so near! We have a number of people who work at the Oak Ridge National Lab who go to our church but can’t say even now what their works entails. I had no idea there was a tour – that would be fun to do some time. We did go to a museum there but it was small and very old fashioned, so I don’t know if it was the same one – will have to ask my husband. He doesn’t work at ORNL but was a physics major, so he could probably tell you about plutonium. 🙂 I had known nothing about the “secret city” until we came here and found the information fascinating. Am going to put that book on my TBR list right now.

  3. The museum actually used to be free. Several years ago it must have lost part of the funding but it is still owned by the Department of Energy. I enjoy hearing about a visitor to the city as I used to live in Oak Ridge about 20 years ago. I find it so funny that they went through all the trouble changing the name of the Lake City to Rocky Top.

  4. The book is well worth it. FYI–you should have visited Crown College where the Bates kids and Joseph Duggar go–it was an exit or two down the road (Powell? iirc?). I assume your husband at least understood what was being done there. My Mom remembers vividly my grandfather trying to explain the science of Hoover dam a few other places only and engineer would REALLY enjoy on their around the country trip in ’48. Enjoying your vacation!

  5. We live in East TN (near Johnson City) but haven’t been to Oak Ridge. I’ve been told that the museum is fascinating, so I really want to take a day trip there.
    Dede from Savings in Seconds

  6. As soon as I began reading this post I was saying to myself, would she and the girls really understand what this was all about? I’m ashamed to say it, but that stop would have been a wasted one for me. I do think I’d enjoy reading the book, though. I have one on hold now at the library. When that one is read, I think I may read this one.

  7. This is something I have little knowledge of. Thanks for the mentioning the book about “the girls of the atomic city.” I’m going to check it out at the library too.

  8. How interesting, Susan! Small world. I was born in 1947, my family lived in Oak Ridge but I was so young at the time that I remember only a few things. It seems there was an Indian Reservations of some sort close by. I recall we bought a chief’s headressing with feathers, a drum and other fun toys. We lived in a mobile home (trailer). My dad was an electrician and we moved there fo his work. But my goodness your report told me more than I ever knew about the place. Glad you had a good time.

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