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Tennessee town produced payload for WWII A-bombs

© By Pat Brennan
  The Secret City is not so secret any more - unless you're a Canadian. There are areas of this small Tennessee town where only Americans are permitted - on most days. It depends who is on duty at the security desk, according to officials at the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau. They invited travel writers to tour this fascinating community in the Appalachia Valley where the Manhattan Project was born. Canadians on the tour were told to send in their passport numbers and a resume two weeks before arriving in Oak Ridge, 20 miles west of Knoxville, so they could tour the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Three hours before arriving at the heavily-guarded lab gate the Canadian writers were told, "Sorry, not today."
     One of the unique features of this famous laboratory is the world's most powerful energy creator - The Spallation Neutron Source, which is nearing the end of its seven-year and $1.4 billion U.S. construction. Ironically scientists from around the world, particularly Canada, will be invited to come and play with the SNS, which will produce nanosecond bursts of energy in excess of 10008 electron volts. Now that's fast.
     Apologetic tour guides from the visitor's bureau said some security restrictions are based merely on who is sitting at the desk that day. Still, Oak Ridge has come a long way from its shy days. In 1945 it was the fifth-largest community in Tennessee with 75,000 residents. But it couldn't be found on any map. Security gates, guard towers and soldiers with dogs roaming the rolling wooded hills surrounding the town, kept out the nosy and the spies. If a girl wanted to join the local Brownies group she had to be interviewed by the FBI and she and her fellow Brownies couldn't sell Girl Guide cookies because that might tip off somebody about just how many people were living and working in this city. And fewer than 1,000 of the residents actually knew what they were doing in Oak Ridge. When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the residents of Oak Ridge learned what they had been doing - creating the atomic fuel for those bombs. Most of the uranium that they refined to create the nucleus of the bombs came from Canada. So did the heavy water used in the experiments.
     Much of that story - maybe the biggest of the 20th century - is told in the American Museum of Science & Energy at Oak Ridge. Yes, even Canadians can get in - after passing over $5 U.S. The museum has a large display on loan from Toronto's Ontario Science Centre, but it's not Fat Man. The museum has a replica of Fat Man - the nickname for the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. There are also replicas of America's most modern nuclear weapons, which seems appropriate, because over at the national laboratory, some of Oak Ridge's 27,500 residents are dismantling nuclear weapons - both American and Russian - as part of the SALT ll treaty. You can even buy a Fat Man. It's a burger at Jefferson's Drug Stone, which has been serving the best breakfast in town since they split the first atom here.
     The museum illustrates the strange life in Oak Ridge during its secret days, thanks to the photos shot by Ed Wescott, who is 92 and still a resident of Oak Ridge. So too is 83-year-old chemist Bill Wilcox, who was hired to work on the Manhattan Project right out of college. He now works on a local preservation committee trying to save some of the Manhattan buildings at Oak Ridge that are facing the wrecking ball.
     It's a tough assignment, says Wilcox, because they were the largest buildings in the world when built. "Oak Ridge is an amazing story because the city of 75,000 was built in two years and the bomb was built in only three years after the very earliest experiments," said Wilcox. "A spy in Los Alamos (New Mexico where the bomb was assembled) gave all our research details to the Russians and it still took four years for them to build their first atomic bomb. That tells you just how amazing the Oak Ridge story is."
     The locals are very proud that there was never an information leak from Oak Ridge during the Second World War. One reason the secret city was built in this beautiful valley only a few miles off Interstate 75, which carries hundreds of thousands of Canadians south each year, is because of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
     President Franklin Roosevelt launched the TVA - a series of 15 dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries - to provide jobs during the Dirty '30s, bringing electricity to the Appalachia area and stop the annual flooding problems in the valleys. The TVA provided the huge electrical needs of Oak Ridge, but also created one of the best outdoor recreation areas east of the Mississippi. And because thousands of acres of Appalachian valleys and homesteads were to be covered by lakes, the historic buildings, artifacts and stories of the area were collected in various museums in the area. Much of the intriguing history of this town will be relived during the Secret City Festival on June 16 and 17 - and Canadians are welcome to attend.

Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.

Photo Credits
Pat Brennan: Fat Man & Little Boy

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