Oak Ridge was built in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project—but its thousands of workers were largely unaware of their role in the war effort

Sign at the East Tennessee Technology Park. | Photo: Caroline Eubanks

I’ m sitting on a shuttle, surrounded by octogenarian couples from around the country. The bus is being driven by a former employee of the government site we’re touring, spilling stories about what went on here. I sit by myself, feeling like a spy from a John le Carré novel as I scribble secrets into my notebook. 

“Are you working on a school project?” one of the fellow visitors asks over my shoulder.

“Not exactly,” I mumble, unsure of just how much information to divulge.

A late-night internet research hole brought me to a story about Oak Ridge. The Tennessee town was a part of the Manhattan Project, the secret American operation to create the atomic bomb. I’d passed the highway exit for the area many times in my years of traveling to the Great Smoky Mountains without giving it a second thought. So, when I found out there was exactly one spot left for the last tour of the year, I booked it and made the 200-mile drive from Atlanta.

Upon entering the town on an overcast morning, I’m met with dozens of cookie-cutter mid century-style homes, draped in the famous fog that the Smoky Mountains are named for. I pass plenty of local businesses with names that include “Atomic” or “Secret City,” paying homage to the town’s unique history. After parking at the American Museum of Science and Energy, the starting point for the tour, I show my identification at the front desk and am handed a boarding pass for the bus.

Inside the Smithsonian affiliate museum, there are identification cards from the Oak Ridge scientists, calutron machines, industrial cleanup suits, Ed Westcott photos, and interactive panels showing how the uranium isotope creates a chain nuclear reaction. But all of this is only a preview of the larger story.

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If you go

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bus tours are currently on hold. Contact the American Museum of Science and Energy directly for the latest information. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour of the K-25 Building.