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« Blue Highways: Tazewell, Tennessee | Main | Blue Highways: Wartburg, Tennessee »

Blue Highways: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapToday's stretch of our journey with William Least-Heat Moon (LHM) brings us back to the Cold War, as we enter the once secret city of Oak Ridge.  Had he traveled in the 1940s and 50s, he might not have been able to find it as it did not appear on any maps.  You can find it now by clicking the map thumbnail.

Book Quote

"The mountains opened, and Oak Ridge, a town the federal government hid away in the southern Appalachians during the Second World War for the purpose of carving a future out of pitchblende, lay below.  Here, scientists working on the Manhattan Project had made plutonium.  In the bookstore of the Museum of Atomic Energy were The Complete Book of Heating With Wood and Build Your Own Low Cost Log Home."

Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 17

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

When I was young, I used to daydream about finding someplace secret.  I spent long hours daydreaming out at some wilderness property we owned imagining whole cities that I would discover when topping a ridge, or rounding the next bend in a small valley.

The literature I read also often dealt with lost or secret places.  I knew the myth of the lost city of AtlantisArthurian legend says that Arthur was taken to the mystical island of Avalon.  I read the book and saw the movie Lost Horizon, which introduced me to Shangri La.  As a high schooler, I devoured the books of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in The Silmarillion, he tells the history of the secret city of Gondolin, a city of elves hidden in a secret vale in the mountains.  He also wrote of the hidden land of Valinor, haven of the Elves, which was ultimately separated from Middle Earth when the men of Numenor encroached upon it.  Other fantasy books, which I was also very into, often had worlds hidden from us physically and temporally but interacting with us.  Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books had Tarzan helping and going up against lost civilizations, his Mars books detailed the adventures of an earth man among the various civilizations and races of Mars, as did his books of VenusRobert E. Howard created an entire world hidden from us through time because of cataclysmic occurrences altering the geography of the earth.  This world was the setting for Conan the Barbararian, and Kull the Conqueror before him.

I write all this not to implicate myself as a complete nerd - which I have just done anyway - but to show that the desire to discover secret places, places only we know about, seems to be a universal desire.  Before the world was completely and fully known, it was easy to fantasize and fear undiscovered places.  As the world gets smaller, the loss of a frontier to explore leads us to look elsewhere - in space, in time, and even beyond those to new dimensions.

So, what fun, and how sobering, it was to find out that during the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. both established and maintained secret cities connected to nuclear weapons research and production.  The Russians had dozens of such cities, which were surrounded by concrete walls and gates, where permits were required to live and to enter and exit, and where the people working and living were under heavy surveillance by the KGB.  Nobody was allowed to acknowledge the existence of these places.

The U.S. had only three secret cities, but they were remarkably like the Soviet secret cities.  Located in Hanford, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee they also required immense amounts of security and secrecy.  Oak Ridge, for example, was built on land appropriated by the U.S. government through eminent domain, and people were evicted, sometimes forcibly.  Once built, the city did not appear on any maps, people who lived and worked there were not allowed to acknowledge its existence, any mail originating in Oak Ridge was censored, and proper permits and identification were required for entrance and exit.  Conditions at Los Alamos and Hanford were very similar.

Secrecy warning once common at Oak Ridge

Of course, the work was nuclear in nature, part of the Manhattan Project which developed the bomb.  In all three cities, components for the bomb were made.  Oak Ridge enriched uranium and had a pilot program for plutonium, while Hanford was devoted to developing plutonium.  Los Alamos was the final assembly site for the first atomic bomb, which was detonated at the Trinity Site in what is now the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

After the war, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos became sites of National Laboratories, while Hanford became a site of nine nuclear reactors which are now largely decommissioned.  While Oak Ridge and Los Alamos are still municipal entities, the town of Hanford was largely destroyed to make way for the facilities.  At Oak Ridge today, the Department of Energy operates a number of research facilities that study in diverse disciplines such as biological systems, energy, advanced materials, national security, chemical sciences, physics, electron microscopy, nanosciences,and nuclear medicine.  According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it is even working on cutting edge technology to find child pornography and nab predators.

Of course, with the advent of satellites, secret cities are a thing of the past.  But they once were an integral part of the national security of two adversarial nations that between them controlled the known world.  The idea of secret cities are exciting, but the sobering part is that our secret cities have been busy developing a technology that, regardless of whether you think it has had positive or negative effects, could have led to world destruction and possible human extinction.  It makes for good Cold War intrigue, but ultimately, I wish the some of the potential consequences of our secret cities weren't so dire.

If you want to know more about Oak Ridge

City of Oak Ridge
Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge (blog)
Frank Munger's Atomic City Underground (blog)
It Dawned On Me: Oak Ridge, TN Developed the Atomic Bomb and Now Stopping Child Predators (blog)
Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau
Oak Ridge National Laboratories
The Oak Ridger (Newspaper)
Wikipedia: Oak Ridge

Next up:  Tazewell, Tennessee

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