A Look Inside America's Secret Atomic City

By | April 29, 2016

Most of the 75,000 resident of Oak Ridge, Tennessee settled into the “secret city,” with very little idea what they would do there, other than the promise that their work was going to end World War II.

Sure enough, on the 6th of August 1945, a nuclear bomb that the residents of Oak Ridge helped developed, effectively ended the war. Most of the townspeople have no idea they were inside a secret nuclear facility, processing uranium for a superbomb.

These photos were taken by the only authorised photographer of the mysterious town, Ed Westcott. Westcott documented the everyday mundane life of a seemingly suburban American town.

Oak Ridge was established in 1942 as part of the massive top-secret American, British and Canadian atomic bomb operation - the Manhattan Project.

Secrecy was top priority. If any of the residents started to ask too many questions, goverment agents would immediately pay them a visit and escort them to the gates.

“If somebody was to ask you, ‘What are you making out there in Oak Ridge,’ you say, 79 cents an hour,'” one resident recalled.

Billboards are scattered around the town reminding residents to stay tight-lipped about their job - even if they’ve no idea what they were doing it for.


The vehicle inspection stop - eveyone was searched, even the highest-ranking military officials, no exceptions.

Telephone operators at Oak Ridge preparing for a shift change at the switchboard, 1946

After the war, Oak Ridge resident Mary Anne Bufard who work at a laundry talk about her mysterious duties:

“You’d be climbing all over these pipes, and testing the welds in them. Then they had a mass spectrometer there, and you had to watch the dials go off, and you weren’t supposed to say that word, either. And the crazy thing is, I didn’t ask. I mean, I didn’t know where those pipes were going, I didn’t know what was going through them … I just knew that I had to find the leak and mark it.”


Mary would later learn she was screening for radiation.

One popular theory amongst workers was that Eleanor Roosevelt was planning to turn America into a communist country and that Oak Ridge was a prototype communist community.

To squelch rumors and suspicions, workers were constantly reminded that they’re doing a very important job but just couldn’t see the result yet.

The project also made extra effort to provide the residents amenities common in an ideal suburban American town like this posh restaurant.

The town also had roller-skating rinks, bowling alleys, sports teams, theatres, shopping & more!










Setting up the bus route, 1944.


The government had a lettering system in place to allocate housing to Oak Ridge residents, depending on their rank in the community and the size of their families. So basically, a high-ranking officer with a bigger family would be allocated an “F” house - a two-story, four-unit structure. “A” houses have the smallest living spaces.

There were also the “flat tops” reserved for young newcomers.


Unidentified clerks waiting on woman in the dorm room assignment, 1945

Oak Ridge children playing in an atom plane, 1945.

For the many workers and residents of Oak Ridge, this V-J day celebration in downtown Oak Ridge in August of 1945 would have been the first time, along with the rest of the world, that they learned of the existence of a superbomb.

Two years after World War II, the town of Oak Ridge was demilitirized and transferred to civilian control. In 1966, an American Museum of Science and Energy was founded to give tours of the control room and reactor face.


This old hotel known as the Alexander Inn, is one of the few remnants of the original secret city.

Built during the Manhattan Project to accommodate official visitors and many important nuclear physicists, the hotel finally closed its doors in the mid 1990s. Since then, it has been left to fall into serious disrepair.


In the immediate postwar years, the Manhattan Project conducted testing of nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll, which permanently poisoned the island and displaced its indigenous residents. Here's "The Story of Bikini Atoll: The Poisoned Paradise Island."

H/T The Photography of Ed Westcott | NPR | The Nuclear Secrecy Blog