Top Secret Town

Posted by Kathleen Smith
Security billboard in Oak Ridge, 1960

A sleepy small town where everyone knows your name nestled among 75,000 acres of farmland and forest. White picket fences encircle perfect little houses, and facilities house top secret research. A sheriff and his deputy maintain the peace, not by rescuing cats stranded in trees but by keeping quantum physicists and nuclear reactors in check. This is not the small town of Eureka of SyFy fame, but the actual town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Eureka, as the story goes, was commissioned by President Truman at the urging of Albert Einstein to build a top-secret residential development that would be home to the nation’s most valuable intellectual resources. There America’s greatest thinkers would work on the next era of scientific achievement, living and working in a supportive environment. Oak Ridge’s beginnings were not so idyllic or utopian.

Oak Ridge was conceived shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing to conduct nuclear materials research and production. Six months after the bombing, the government decided that the United States needed to build an atomic bomb, as it was known that Germany had already begun research. At its height in 1945, over 75,000 people lived and worked in Oak Ridge with the sole purpose of winning the ”battle”; namely to beat Germany and Japan in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was also home to the Manhattan Project.

While the residents of Oak Ridge did not have “smart” houses similar to SARAH, they did have over 300 homes that were designed by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). The firm was also contracted to design the layout for the town.

In Syfy’s Eureka you have everything from an exotic but delightful café which will serve you any food, at any time, for free, to fusion reactors providing all energy needs, to all the amenities that the greatest minds in the world would need to allow them to create ground-breaking research.

In Oak Ridge there were 300 miles of roads, 55 miles of railroad track, ten schools, seven theaters, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, and 13 supermarkets. The town could boast a library with 9,400 books, a symphony orchestra, sporting facilities, church services for 17 denominations, and even their own Fuller Brush Company salesman. The town operated 24 hours a day and all residents — including children — had to wear security badges. Like Eureka, Oak Ridge could not be found on any map even though it was Tennessee’s fifth largest city.

The Department of Energy has started digitizing many of its historical documents as part of the by the federal government’s initiative to share its unclassified data and information with the public and brings this story to life again. It also begs the question: is there a real Eureka out there?

This entry was posted on Monday, April 23, 2012 7:18 am

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