In July of 1943, U.S. Army Capt. George B. Leonard handed Gov. Prentice Cooper a letter of proclamation from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Roosevelt's Public Proclamation No. 2 designated “Clinton Engineer Works as a total exclusion area no longer under state control."
In other words, the president had informed Cooper that the federal government held authority to seize approximately 60,000 acres of Tennessee land west of Knoxville, with no explanation. Years later, this area became known as Oak Ridge, one of the main sites for the Manhattan Project during World War II.
Cooper didn't take the news well. In Leonard's presence, he angrily tore the proclamation into pieces.
Actually, though, the story began months earlier.
In October of 1942, U.S. Gen. Leslie Groves and federal lawyers went to court to get permission for the government to take ownership of the 60,000 acres of land in Anderson and Roane counties. This area contained the homes and farms of approximately 1,000 families. The Army Corps of Engineers acquired land for the Manhattan Project, but failed to work effectively with local property owners. According to historical accounts, many residents simply came home to find eviction notices tacked to front doors, trees or gates.
|Business and Residential Oak Ridge Map, 1973, Tennessee Virtual Archive, Library & Archives Map Collection.|
The Corps of Engineers was supposed to allow six weeks for evacuation, but some residents were only given two. Schools, churches, and groceries were closed. Homes and cemeteries were abandoned. Piling their belongings on trucks or wagons or in some cases leaving them behind, departing residents crossed paths with the thousands of construction workers pouring into the area.
Anderson County leaders complained about the land grab to Cooper, who hadn't yet heard about the project. Cooper accused the army of stealing people’s land for a socialism project.
Although Cooper refused to read the federal proclamation and tore it to pieces, he could do nothing to stop the project. In later years, Tennesseans expressed pride in the part their state had played in the Manhattan Project, which helped to end the war.
|Cartoons such as these appeared in Oak Ridge newspapers, as well as on billboards throughout the town, to remind residents to keep quiet about their work. The Oak Ridge Journal, Sept. 21, 1944. Library & Archives Microfilm Collection.|
The name "Oak Ridge" was chosen for the settlement in 1943 from suggestions submitted by project employees. The name related to the settlement's location along Black Oak Ridge and officials thought the rural-sounding name "held outside curiosity to a minimum."
However, officials did not formally adopt the name until 1949. Up to that time, officials referred to the site as the Clinton Engineer Works. Oak Ridge also adopted several nicknames such as “The Secret City," “The Atomic City," “The Ridge," “The City Behind The Fence," and “Mud City."
The purpose of the Oak Ridge facility centered around processing uranium ore so that workers could extract from it particular kinds of radioactive materials. These materials, like U-235 and plutonium, were used to make an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy," which was ultimately used in the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.
At its peak population in May 1945, 75,000 people lived in Oak Ridge, making it the state's fifth largest city - even though it never appeared on any map at the time. The town also consumed one-seventh of all the electrical power produced in the United States.
|An aerial view of part of the Oak Ridge community, with the Cumberland Mountains in the background, Tennessee Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, 1937-1976, Box 17, File 87.|
Today, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is still in operation and local residents take pride in the laboratory's scientific development and the important role the city played in national and world history.
The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State