How the Manhattan Project's Nuclear Suburb Stayed Secret


How the Manhattan Project’s Nuclear Suburb Stayed Secret

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Bill Wilcox was proud of his town. He’d been there since the beginning—before farmland gave way to dormitories and houses and lawns, before the ribbons of roads and sidewalks were laid down, before a single ball had rolled down a lane at the bowling alley. Before it even had a name.

When Wilcox arrived in this part of East Tennessee in 1943, soon after graduating from college with a degree in chemistry, he was among the first residents of the place that would eventually be called Oak Ridge. Wilcox lived and worked there for decades, and he later became the town’s historian. “Can’t image a better place to live,” he told an interviewer in 2013.

But Oak Ridge isn’t like most of the country’s other suburbs. The town was conceived and built by the United States government in the early 1940s as base for uranium and plutonium work, as part of the Manhattan Project. As the nuclear effort marched along, the town grew, too. By 1945, a dense suburb had taken shape, home to roughly 75,000 people. At war’s end, Oak Ridge was the fifth-largest city in the state—and all along, it was supposed to be a secret.