Oak Ridge is a city in Anderson and Roane counties in the eastern part of the U.S. state of Tennessee, about west of Knoxville. Oak Ridge's population was 29,330 at the 2010 census. The portion of the city located in Anderson County is included in the Knoxville Metropolitan Area, while the portion located in Roane County is included in the Harriman, Tennessee Micropolitan Statistical Area; both of these areas are components of the Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette, TN Combined Statistical Area. Oak Ridge's nicknames include the Atomic City, the Secret City, the Ridge, and the City Behind the Fence.
Oak Ridge was established in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project—the massive U.S. government operation that developed the atomic bomb. Scientific development still plays a crucial role in the city's economy and culture in general.
The earliest substantial occupation of the Oak Ridge area occurred during the Woodland period (c. 1000 BC–1000), although artifacts dating to the Paleo-Indian period have been found throughout the Clinch Valley. Two Woodland mound sites—the Crawford Farm Mounds and the Freels Farm Mounds—were uncovered in the 1930s as part of the Norris Basin salvage excavations. Both sites were located just southeast of the former Scarboro community. The Bull Bluff site, which was occupied during both the Woodland and Mississippian (c. 1000–1600) periods, was uncovered in the 1960s in anticipation of the construction of Melton Hill Dam. Bull Bluff is a cliff located immediately southeast of Haw Ridge, opposite Melton Hill Park. The Oak Ridge area was largely uninhabited by the time Euro-American explorers and settlers arrived in the late 18th century, although the Cherokee claimed the land as part of their hunting grounds.
In the 19th century, the Oak Ridge area saw the development of several rural farming communities, namely Edgemoor and Elza in the northeast, East Fork and Wheat in the southwest, Robertsville in the west, and Bethel and Scarboro in the southeast. The settlers who founded these communities first arrived in the late 1790s, when the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Holston, ceding what is now Anderson County to the United States.
According to local tradition, John Hendrix (1865–1915), an eccentric local resident regarded as a mystic, prophesied the establishment of Oak Ridge some 40 years before construction began. Upset by the death of his young daughter and the subsequent departure of his wife and remaining family, he became religious and told his neighbors he was seeing visions. When he described his visions, people thought he was insane; for this reason, he was institutionalized for a time. According to several published accounts, one vision that he described repeatedly was an uncannily accurate description of the city and production facilities that were built 28 years after his death. The version recalled by neighbors and relatives has been reported as follows:
In the woods, as I lay on the ground and looked up into the sky, there came to me a voice as loud and as sharp as thunder. The voice told me to sleep with my head on the ground for 40 nights and I would be shown visions of what the future holds for this land.... And I tell you, Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be. And there will be a city on Black Oak Ridge and the center of authority will be on a spot middle-way between Sevier Tadlock's farm and Joe Pyatt's Place. A railroad spur will branch off the main L&N line, run down toward Robertsville and then branch off and turn toward Scarborough. Big engines will dig big ditches, and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things, and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake. I've seen it. It's coming.
Starting in October 1942, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring the Oak Ridge area for the Manhattan Project. Unlike TVA's land acquisitions for Norris Dam—which were still fresh on the minds of many Anderson Countians—the Corps' "declaration of taking" was much more swift and final. Many residents came home to find eviction notices tacked to their doors. Most were given six weeks to evacuate, although several had as little as two weeks. Some were even forced out before they received compensation. By March 1943, the area's pre-Manhattan Project communities had been removed, and fences and checkpoints had been established. Anderson County lost one-seventh of its land and $391,000 in annual property tax revenue. The manner with which the Oak Ridge area was acquired created a tense, uneasy relationship between Oak Ridge and the surrounding towns that lasted throughout the Manhattan Project.
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 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."
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 Partner John O. Merrill moved to Tennessee to take charge of designing the secret buildings at Oak Ridge. He directed the creation of a town, which soon had of roads, 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 which 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 been 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 School was 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 briefly experienced 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.).
Since World War II
Two years after World War II ended, Oak Ridge was shifted to civilian control, under the authority of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Roane Anderson Company administered most community functions under a government contract. In 1959 the town was incorporated, and a city manager and City Council form of government was adopted by the community rather than direct federal control. Three of the four major facilities created for the wartime bomb production are still standing today:
In 1983, the Department of Energy declassified a report showing that significant amounts of mercury had been released from the Oak Ridge Reservation into the East Fork Poplar Creek between 1950 and 1977. A federal court ordered the DOE to bring the Oak Ridge Reservation into compliance with federal and state environmental regulations.
Currently, the Department of Energy runs a nuclear and high-tech research establishment at the site and performs national security work. Tours of parts of the original facility are available to American citizens from June through September. The tour is so popular that there is a waiting list for seats.
Oak Ridge's scientific heritage is explored in the American Museum of Science and Energy.