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Preserve America is a national initiative in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; the U.S. Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities; and the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

Preserve America Community Close-Up: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Nicknamed the “Secret City,” Oak Ridge, Tennessee, (population 27,387) was built under a cloak of secrecy during World War II. First called Clinton Engineer Works, the city was a major site in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.


What became known in 1948 as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (now under the Department of Energy) is the home to three “Signature” research facilities from the Manhattan Project and the later Cold War era.  They include the Y-12 and K-25 uranium processing facilities and the X-10 nuclear reactor. More than 75,000 people lived in secrecy during the war on the 59,000 acre site. This area within the Tennessee Valley Authority region was chosen because it met military requirements for isolation, electric power, water, labor, and accessibility to nearby highways and railroads. After the war, Oak Ridge transitioned from a “temporary” military town into a city, incorporated in 1959. The city is nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Mountains.

Today, the Department of Energy is still a major employer and presence in Oak Ridge. There are three key sites associated with current and past technological developments: the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the East Tennessee Technology Park, and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.  Oak Ridge draws upon its historic roots to use heritage tourism as a positive economic engine. Programs throughout the city promote the history of Oak Ridge and draw visitors eager to learn about its role during the “secret” years of World War II and the Manhattan Project.

The X-10 Plant was the site of a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor. The site produced the world’s first few grams of plutonium in 1944. After the war, it was used to produce radioisotopes until its closure in 1963. In 1965, the X-10 facility was designated a National Historic Landmark. Bus tours of the site are available to the public from June to September each year.

More recently, the ongoing demolition of the K-25 uranium processing plant has led to both local and national efforts to preserve portions of this and other Manhattan Project-era facilities and incorporate them into tourism programs.     


The City of Oak Ridge determined to make heritage tourism a key element of the community development in the city. To accomplish this, the city received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the development of a community-based heritage tourism master plan. The first step in the process was the completion of a Heritage Tourism Study, which determined how Oak Ridge can best benefit in tourism economic impact from its heritage tourism assets. The results of this study led to the Heritage Tourism Tactical Implementation Plan, which focused on seven big ideas that would help promote heritage tourism.

The annual Secret City Festival promotes the history of Oak Ridge from its World War II roots to the modern day technological developments. The festival combines typical events with a wide variety of programming centered on the history of the city. World War II reenactments and tours of the X-10, K-25, and Y-12 (still in operation) facilities are part of the festivities. Planning for the festival is a year-round endeavor and includes the efforts of scores of volunteers to make the event a success.


The Secret City Commemorative Walk was unveiled at the Secret City Festival in June 2005. The $160,000 history walk is a permanent, walk-around loop placed in the central-city park of Oak Ridge. The Walk is a gift of the Rotary Club of Oak Ridge to the City of Oak Ridge. The Walk presents the history of Oak Ridge from 1942 to 1949 through a series of 10 bronze plaques placed upon concrete monuments. The Walk serves as a focal point in the city, offering visitors an orientation to the history, culture, and heritage of Oak Ridge.

The American Museum of Science and Energy focuses on science and the role Oak Ridge has played in the development of science and technology. Exhibits explore the history of Oak Ridge, models of the facilities in Oak Ridge, and information about the development of the atomic bomb. The museum first opened in 1949 as the American Museum of Atomic Energy in an old wartime cafeteria. Volunteers play a critical role at the museum, filling roles as classroom assistants, live demonstration assistants, front desk attendants, and special events aides.

The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge includes exhibits on Oak Ridge and Appalachia. Although the museum’s focus is on general and hands-on learning, an effort to include the special history of Oak Ridge has been made. Exhibits include “Life in the 1930s,” “The Oak Ridge Corridor: Difficult Decisions,” and “Appalachian Heritage.”


The City of Oak Ridge received a Preserve America Grant in 2008 for the project “Birth of a City: The History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” In honor of the 50th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 2009, the grant will assist in the compilation and interpretation of historic materials from Oak Ridge. The project will include oral history interviews, inventory of records, files, and materials, and the interpretation of historic materials into an exhibit at the Oak Ridge Public Library. The preservation of these irreplaceable records and artifacts will provide the foundation for future preservation, interpretation, and educational initiatives. The project is aimed at educating scholars, students, visitors, and residents about the efforts of the citizens involved in the Manhattan Project.

The Oak Ridge Housing Design Program provides an opportunity for the enhancement of the wartime housing stock that still remains in Oak Ridge. The historic housing stock built during World War II features 10 different standardized designs used to quickly build the needed housing supply.  The age of these houses has led to deterioration, while, at the same time, housing advocates in Oak Ridge rallied for the need for more affordable housing in the city.

The City of Oak Ridge Community Development Department developed 30 sets of free, permit-ready house plans for the 10 different housing types in Oak Ridge. The free house plan program aims to encourage people to purchase and renovate the city’s aging housing stock. Additionally, the City agreed to waive the permit fees if individuals choose to use one of the plans. The architecture firm Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon developed three plans for each different housing type. The plans provide for amenities desired by modern homeowners, including master bedroom and bath suites, larger closets, larger kitchens, and new porches. By promoting the renovation of the historic housing stock, the city of Oak Ridge is continuing the preservation of the entire town.

Oak Ridge contains the complete package of heritage tourism activities for the visitor. Tours of the important, historic sites from the Manhattan Project allow visitors to experience first-hand the history of the city. Museums and festivals complement the primary sites with additional experiences and information. Local preservation efforts ensure visitors for years to come will continue to have the authentic “Secret City” experience.

For more information:

City of Oak Ridge:www.ci.oak-ridge.tn.us/home
Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://oakridgevisitor.com
Secret City Festival: http://secretcityfestival.com
American Museum of Science and Energy: www.amse.org
Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge: http://childrensmuseumofoakridge.org
Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Office: www.oakridge.doe.gov/external

Posted August 12,2014