The U.S. Government’s Top-Secret Town

In 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government acquired 70,000 acres of land in Eastern Tennessee and established a secret town called Oak Ridge. The name chosen to keep outside speculation to a minimum, because Oak Ridge served a vital role for the development of the atomic bomb. The massive complex of massive factories, administrative buildings and every other place a normal town needs to function, was developed for the sole purpose of separating uranium for the Manhattan Project. The completely planned community was designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and had a population of more than 70,000 people. Due to the sensitive nature of the work at Oak Ridge, the entire town was fenced in with armed guards and the entire place – much like the Manhattan Project in general – was a secret of the highest concern.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge office recently started to digitize its collection of archival photos and share them through Flickr; and this group of images from the 1940s are part of those recently released. Amazingly, some people at the DOE are ACL readers and they passed along the link to all of these great pictures, knowing my curiosity for such things.

The Manhattan Project has long fascinated me and much has been written and said about the top-secret program. The scale, cost and secrecy of Oak Ridge makes it an utterly intriguing story. To see the images from Oak Ridge during that era is incredible, even if most of the photos are staged shots of the day-to-day lives of the people that worked on this project. It’s an interesting look back at a program that, for better or worse, drastically changed the world.

The X-10 site above, now the location of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was established as a pilot plant for production of plutonium using the Graphite Reactor.

More info about the photography from the U.S. Department of Energy:

Most of them were taken by Ed Westcott [pictured above], who was the only person allowed to photography the Oak Ridge reservation during the Manhattan Project. Aside from documenting the operations of the project, he spent a lot of time capturing everyday life within the 70,000 acre top secret city. All of the photos with people were meticulously posed.

Comments on “The U.S. Government’s Top-Secret Town

    Rhon on April 10, 2012 7:12 AM:

    Reminds me a lot of Loring Air Force Base up home in Northern Maine. It was the Eastern most base in case if an attack on the USA. Heavily guarded. Once the base closed we found the building called the Nike Site where nuclear bombs were stored.

    Brian Davis on April 10, 2012 8:43 AM:

    Amazing. Something like this existed in Montauk, near where I grew up, on a smaller scale. It was called, “The Montauk Project”. Lots of science fiction has been written about it. If you’re up for some trespassing, you can still see the abandoned houses, weird old buildings, and satellite dishes.

    Rick on April 10, 2012 8:51 AM:

    I live relatively close to Oak Ridge and have several friends from there. It’s still really evident that a certain portion of town is from that era because of the layout and similarities between structures. If you’re ever in Oak Ridge check out Big Ed’s Pizza, it’s the local legend.

    A. Frankel on April 10, 2012 9:24 AM:

    Incredible that they got in touch. Great photos.

    jeremy k on April 10, 2012 11:58 AM:

    favorite ACL post of all time.

    MW is not dead!

    Local on April 10, 2012 1:00 PM:

    The title of the post is a bit misleading – as this city of 70,000 was marked on highways, maps and other geographic reference. It was really more of restricted town with a ‘secret’ purpose. Its all semantics, but I am reminded of my Russian dental hygenist who’s father was a scientist in a city located in northern Russia that had more than 300,000 full-time residents but did not appear on any maps, in any press or any other ‘outside’ reference materials. That was a true secret.

    Jennifer on April 10, 2012 1:28 PM:

    I’m interested to know about the Montauk Project referenced above. I did some quick googling and read the site was opened to the public in 2002. Brian… you said something about needing to trespass to see the old houses and structures… is it open or is it not open? Or is it in PART open? Planning summer adventures and this is so intriguing.


    caleb on April 10, 2012 1:49 PM:

    This is so good.

    Otis on April 10, 2012 3:07 PM:

    Oak Ridge was truly a secret city at the time, and did not officially appear on any maps until 1949. I grew up in Knoxville, just 20 minutes south of Oak Ridge. It’s a fascinating town with plenty of relics from that era. Still a lot of interesting projects happening there today. My pops works for ORNL on the SNS. It’s no Large Hadron Collider, but still a remarkable feat of engineering and science.

    Jeff on April 10, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Have you checked out the cover story on the latest issue of Wired? Fascinating/terrifying stuff… Oak Ridge is referenced.

    OriginalDavid on April 10, 2012 3:35 PM:

    knoxville checking in. i grew up in kingston, and the border to the oak ridge federal property was literally the street at the end of my diveway. 6 steps and i was on super duper secret territory. all i ever saw was national guard doing their weekend drills, but they had tanks and stuff. it was pretty cool if you could sneak through the woods close enough to watch.

    Tepid Participation on April 10, 2012 3:45 PM:

    Great stuff as usual. As a baseball dork, I’m fascinated with the pic of the two ballplayers. A little more web research tells me they’re softball players (but maybe MP’s at night!) Not unusual for the time, but not many sizes of pants- just different sizes of belts. This indicates the amateur status of the team. In my imagination, the fella on the right is the meaty, slugging, right fielder/clean-up hitter. The little guy is the mouthy, quick second baseman known for starting fights he doesn’t finish. Love pics of old ballplayers especially those from weird, gubn’t created southern hamlets.

    Nice work MW.

    Michael Williams on April 10, 2012 4:05 PM:

    I was dead?

    Graham on April 10, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Hey Michael,
    I’ll start by stating that I know nothing about photography, but I’ve been following your site for a long time and know you have a thing for Kodachromes. I came across some Kodachromes that were apparently taken in 1942 when production was ramped up for WWII. The quality of the photos is the best I’ve ever seen for the period and I thought you and your readers would enjoy the content as well. I’m from Long Beach, CA and am told at least a few of the photos were taken at the Douglas aircraft plant in Long Beach.

    Michael Williams on April 10, 2012 4:43 PM:

    @Graham: Those images are pretty well known and many have made appearances in the past. Here’s the full set:

    Sir Fopling Flutter on April 10, 2012 5:12 PM:

    Very curious about the group of tennis players, and how they would have been treated in Tennessee in the 1940s. There was still widespread segregation in the state then, and the armed forces were still segregated for a few more years. However, I have no idea how things would have worked in a top secret facility where everyone’s work was considered essential for the war effort. Anyone more knowledgeable about this subject than me?

    Ray Hull on April 10, 2012 6:13 PM:

    I stayed overnight in Los Alamos last spring while touring northern NM and got a kick out of that town’s “development” out of nowhere. But what I didn’t know was that Robt Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project had spent time in those mountains as a boy and apparently suggested the old ranch site, north of Santa Fe, as a worthy spot to develop the lab and the town to go with it.

    The site is astounding in altitude (~9000′) and we didn’t appreciate it from our approach until we were driving south out that former security “gate” and were amazed at the steep terrain vistas; it was like flying in a plane. The other thing that I noticed, just inside the boundary was an enormous natural gas pipeline gate valve–the largest I have ever seen, and I’m tangentially in that business. This was impressive to me, as natural gas (as opposed to manufactured) was just becoming available by 1943, and I’m guessing that this may have been the first full facility and town to be actually heated and boiler-powered by natural gas. This is all circumstantial speculation on my part; if any other readers know about this, I’d be interested.

    Oh, and the other black-humorous geography note we spotted were the main thorughfares in and around the main labs had South Pacific names…as in Bikini Atoll islands that may or may not exist anymore following bomb tests out there.

    There are some great shots of that community available online; start reviewing here.

    Steve on April 11, 2012 7:50 AM:

    There are still roads in Oak Ridge that abruptly end at a large gate with armed guards. East Tennessee is a very pretty area that I call home. Lots of good people there. Plenty of good things to see if you get a chance to visit.

    Mike Magers on April 11, 2012 12:20 PM:

    The Montauk Project supposedly took place at Camp Hero near the Lighthouse in Montauk. There is a heap of conspiracy theorist stuff on it (the original X Files, etc…who knows). I scaled the fence to get into the restricted areas and took some photos of the towers, “acid house,” etc. – pretty cool/spooky place…there wasn’t a soul around. If you go, watch out for ticks…they are everywhere.

    I have a few photos posted on my site – if you want to check them out.

    joel on April 11, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Great post. really enjoyed looking at the photos.

    Ted on April 11, 2012 9:24 PM:


    Susie on April 12, 2012 2:16 AM:

    @Sir Fopling Flutter, re: Segregation

    Here comes a long as hell comment! Sorry, this is one of my main areas of interest and current working projects!!

    I am conducting extensive research on Oak Ridge and the surrounding areas in Kingston and east Tennessee generally, all areas where TVA and ORNL has made a huge impact on the land and on daily life. This is directly related to my dissertation research project (which is centered on the 2008 TVA coal slurry flood in neighboring Kingston and the changes to this landscape for energy production).

    To answer your question, I discovered in my research that segregation was actually FEDERALLY mandated in Oak Ridge. The area was populated quickly with everyone from top scientists to working class professionals, admins, and construction workers and day laborers. These workers migrated into the region from around the country (and world), while many of the blue collar laborers migrated from the surrounding Appalachian region. This follows in the long history of labor migration in the area based on changing national energy demands (coal miners worked intermittently at different mines, etc). When the federal government build Oak Ridge, it was secret for a few years even to the governor of TN, and appeared on no maps. As noted above, this changed after WWII ended and today the town is no longer under control of the federal gov’t. The construction for housing was constantly underway during those early years, as prior to the project the landscape was sparsely populated by subsistence farming families. There was a decision on the part of government and military planners to segregate the town to “follow the customs of the region.” But it’s worth noting that in the Appalachian region (unlike the Southern urban centers, etc) that blacks and whites (and many immigrants) mixed in the labor of the mines, etc. This was not a slave holding population, but an area where most were very poor before such massive development projects like TVA and ORNL, and bonds were formed in labor and small communities. I’m not saying it was some racial utopia, but it’s important to note that Appalachia has differing experiences of race (and class) than other parts of the south.

    Interestingly, there is some precedent to this federally mandated segregation, and very close by geographically. The town of Norris was created in east Tennessee just a decade prior, when a vast river valley was flooded to create TVA’s first dam. Again in this moment, subsistence farming families who lived without electricity and plumbing, etc, were evacuated from the land they had known for generations to make way for a project of national energy expansion rooted in wartime development (TVA has roots in WWI bombmaking). Once the residents were removed and the land flooded to create Norris dam, an idyllic suburban-like community was constructed nearby as a sort of prototype of the proper way to live with electricity. While the displaced mostly remained poor, but in different areas, Norris became an upper class exurb of Knoxville. This town, Norris, was also federally planned and excluded people of color.

    In both these instances, the NAACP fought against this mandate of segregation, noting that it actually goes against the tradition of racial mixing in the region.

    As it turns out, I am from Kingston (just outside of Oak Ridge) and my grandfather, who was an artisan glass blower (his father a coal miner) ended up becoming a scientific glass blower once Oak Ridge was established. My father also worked at ORNL while I was growing up. We lived in nearby Kingston, and I passed by the guard towers (where armed guards used to check passes to the “secret city”) on my weekly trips to ballet class.

    I kind of can’t believe I’m seeing this post and this interest in the region and it’s history. I’ve spent the last few years of my life researching this stuff for my own reasons and assuming most people could care less about anything in east Tennessee.

    Nathanial on April 12, 2012 7:41 AM:

    @ Jeff:

    I was thinking the exact same thing re. the NSA “top secret” data center being built in Utah paid for with taxpayers dollars at a cost of $2 billion so they can spy on every fucking thing we do or say.

    Our bumbling U.S. Government isn’t very good at keeping secrets, not to mention wisely investing money that they actually don’t have to spend.

    Fortunately I don’t pay much in taxes, but I feel sorry for others that have to pay for this thing, being created by a bunch of retarded children who think they know better than the rest of us.

    Welcome to the official police state!

    Steve on April 12, 2012 8:08 AM:

    Susie, great post. I grew up in North Knoxville and married a Clinton girl. I grew up on Norris lake during the 70’s and would go to Big Eds after a long day on the water. It is kinda funny to hear the interest in our hometown.

    The area has such an interesting history and is a little different than the classic stereotypes.

    Sir Fopling Flutter on April 12, 2012 3:34 PM:

    Susie – thank you for such a detailed response. I’m sure there’s a book (or at least a dissertation) to be written on the subject.

    Invictus on April 12, 2012 9:07 PM:

    I knew it! Eureka DOES exist!

    Joline on April 13, 2012 11:06 AM:

    Susie, Thanks so much for your post. I grew up in Oak Ridge after moving there from a small town in Monroe County. All my life I have told people what you have discovered and “verified” with your research. My great grandfather was a Union Calveryman as were many from E. TN. My maternal grandfather had a farm in Roane County and the farm next to them was owned my an African-American. They helped each other harvest crops and sat down together for meals when the harvesting was over. Glad this got into the ’59 blog. Thanks again.

    Alex W. on April 13, 2012 5:28 PM:

    Excellent photos and write-up! One of the almost-unknown facts about all of those sports teams at Oak Ridge during World War II is that they were sponsored in part as a way of relieving the secrecy. The logic by the Manhattan Project officials is that most of the workers at the plant would have no idea what it was their jobs were contributing to (because of the excessive compartmentalization, or “need to know” secrecy policies), and so in order to make up for the low morale that would accompany that, they invested heavily in intramural sports. Baseball for bombs… a true story!

    EastTN Dave on April 14, 2012 8:34 PM:

    I was born and raised in Kingston too and worked at Y-12 for 37 years. There are a lot of photos being released as well as some old and new videos. Here’s a link to some very interesting videos. I think the four episode series “A Nuclear Family” is very well done. The fourth episode hasn’t been released yet.

    EastTN Dave on April 14, 2012 8:35 PM:
    Ben Bowers on April 16, 2012 11:40 AM:

    Cool to see this on ACL. My uncle and aunt worked at the Oak Ridge facility for their entire career. He essentially worked as an atom smasher repair man, fixing the advanced equipment used in their testing. She was a book keeper.

    It’s a strange, but interesting place, and a lot of their personal photos have a similar vibe. A lot of cousins and fam still live their today.

    bob007 on April 18, 2012 6:48 PM:


    that center in utah, it’s for data-basing every word you think. don’t worry about the thought police, it’s the thought insertion guys you wanna worry about.

    As for the montauk project, I had a very important person in 20thy century history tell me, “that montauk point, it’s a very, very special place.” I’ve yet to grasp the true scope of this project, but I suspect it was involved with psycho and bio physics. FYI, this project supposedly was fully active in the 60’s, not 40’s.

    look for bob, seriously.

    Joshua Eakle on April 19, 2012 11:12 AM:

    My friend does security at the nuclear plant. It’s not so much of a secret town anymore.

    hemmel on April 19, 2012 3:53 PM:

    Nice article, Mike. Haven’t been here in a while, and good to see that you are not dead!


    GGirl on April 19, 2012 10:51 PM:

    This sounds/looks like an episode of the TV show Eureka. I love you C.

    Jani on April 21, 2012 3:06 PM:

    Wonderful. I mean it in the best paranoid – 40’s the Russians are coming! – way. You’re back, aren’t you!

    Juan on April 22, 2012 3:46 PM:

    Interesante noticia. A mis 56 años ni me lo imaginaba. Bueno para enriquecer mi cultura .

    Drew on April 26, 2012 11:49 PM:


    I would love to know where you plan on visiting this summer. I was laid off and was thinking of doing the same thing. Driving around the country going to abandoned towns/ factories/ facilities.


    check them out on May 8, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Highly energetic article, I loved that bit. Will there be a part 2?

Comments are closed.