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Excerpts From

ORNL: THE FIRST 50 YEARS--CHAPTER 1: WARTIME LABORATORY

Related Link: The Wheat Community African Burial Ground

[ Start | History | Church | Cemetery | Monument ]

This article also appears in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review (Vol. 25, Nos. 3 and 4), a quarterly research and development magazine. If you'd like more information about the research discussed in the article or about the Review, or if you have any helpful comments, drop us a line at: electronic mail, krausech@ornl.gov or pearcejw@ornl.gov; fax, 615/574-1001; phone, 615/574-7183 or 615/574-6774; or mail, ORNL Review, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 4500-S 6144, Oak Ridge, TN 378312-6144. Thanks for reading the Review.

Spreading out along broad valleys cut by the Clinch River and framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Oak Ridge seems an unlikely setting for events that would change the course of history.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, century-old family farms and small crossroads communities such as Scarborough, Wheat, Robertsville, and Elza occupied what was about to become the Oak Ridge Reservation. Outsiders considered the region a quaint reminder of the 19th-century frontier that time and progress had passed by.

In truth, the area experienced enormous change during the early 20th century. On the up side, it felt the effects of Henry Ford's automobile and shared, to some extent, the comforts afforded by electricity; on the down side, it reeled from the aftershocks of the Great Depression that rocked the economy and exerted additional pressures on the region's fragile natural resources. Located just 25 miles from the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA's) corporate headquarters at Knoxville and just a few miles below TVA's huge Norris Dam on the Clinch River, the area was, in fact, a focal point of one of the nation's boldest experiments in social and economic engineering. The tiny Wheat community, for example, had been selected for a TVA-inspired venture in cooperative agriculture.

Residents of the Oak Ridge area in 1941 did not feel bypassed by history. But even the advent of the automobile, the introduction of electricity, the hardships of the Great Depression, and direct participation in an unprecedented government-sponsored social experiment did not prepare them for what was about to happen.

In early 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers designated a 59,000-acre (146,000-hectare) swatch of land between Black Oak Ridge to the north and the Clinch River to the south as a federal reserve to serve as one of three sites nationwide for the development of the atomic bomb. About 3000 residents received court orders to vacate within weeks the homes that their families had occupied for generations. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and workers swarmed into Oak Ridge to build and operate three huge facilities that would change the history of the region and the world forever.

On the reservation's western edge rose K-25, or the gaseous diffusion plant, a warehouselike building covering more area than any structure ever built. Completed at a cost of $500 million and operated by 12,000 workers, the K-25 Plant separated uranium-235 from uranium-238. On its northern edge grew the workers' city named Oak Ridge; south of the city rose the Y-12 Plant, where an electromagnetic method was used to separate uranium-235. Built for $427 million, the Y-12 Plant employed 22,000 workers. Near the reservation's southwest corner, about 10 miles from Y-12, was the third plant, X-10.

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SIDEBARS

ATOMS IN APPALACHIA

Before late summer of 1942, residents of four rural communities in the Clinch River valley farmed the land, growing tobacco and corn and raising cattle, chickens, and pigs. Some men made cornmeal in grist mills, and others mined coal in the nearby Cumberland Mountains. Women canned berries, beans, pickles, and peaches in their clapboard homes or log cabins. Families participated in hog killings, quilting parties, strawberry picking, ice cream making, and corn shucking. Children traded eggs and berries for candy in the country store, where villagers gossiped and exchanged news. Families worshiped and enjoyed all-day singings, square dancing, pie suppers, and homecomings at their local churches.

The land occupied by these settlers had been acquired for homesteading in 1798 by a treaty between the U.S. government and several Cherokee tribes. Some of the residents of the four communities had moved there after being displaced by government activities such as the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by the National Park Service and the construction of Norris Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority. In September 1942, about 1000 families were displaced again by the U.S. government's acquisition of 59,000 acres for the wartime Manhattan Project.

The four displaced communities were Elza, Robertsville, Wheat, and Scarborough (now spelled Scarboro).

Elza, named after a construction engineer in charge of building a railroad bridge there, was once the home of John Hendrix, the "prophet" who around 1900 predicted that Bear Creek Valley (where the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant stands) "someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be."

Robertsville was settled in 1804 by Collins Roberts, who had received a 4000-acre land grant in what is now Oak Ridge. Robertsville High School was built there around 1915; its auditorium is now the gymnasium of Robertsville Junior High School.

Wheat, settled in the middle of the 19th century, was named after the first postmaster, Frank Wheat. It was the home of Roane College, a liberal arts college that was open from 1886 through 1908. The community was dispersed by acquisition of the land for the K-25 Site.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its surrounding land displaced Scarborough, which was founded in the 1790s and named after three early settlers--Jonathan, David, and James Scarborough, brothers from Virginia. The area had been called Pellissippi by the Cherokees.

Of the four communities that predated Oak Ridge, only Scarborough retains much of its old character (although the houses and country stores along Bethel Valley Road are gone). Scarborough Elementary School burned in the late 1920s but it was rebuilt as a brick structure, part of which is still standing and used by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Also standing is the New Bethel Church across from ORNL. Church leaders were convinced that the government would tear down the church in 1942, so they voted to erect a monument to the church as their last official action. The memorial behind the church reads "Erected in Memory of New Bethel Baptist Church, Open 1851 Closed 1942...Church Building Stood 47 Feet in Front of this Stone."

However, the U.S. government let the building remain and used it for storage, meetings, and experiments. It serves today as a museum about the residents who had to move and leave their beloved land.

Residents of Scarborough were as unhappy as the settlers in Wheat, Robertsville, and Elza about leaving their farms and land. But, as one of them said: "What do you do? The government needed your land to win the war. Who would refuse such a request as that?"

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Related Link: The Wheat Community African Burial Ground

[ Start | History | Church | Cemetery | Monument ]

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~ Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), U.S. president. Ed. Samuel I. Rosenman, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech at Chautauqua, New York, August 14, 1936, vol. 5, p. 292, New York, Random House (1938-1950). Edward M. Bennett, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Search for Security: American-Soviet Relations, 1933-1939, p. 79, Scholarly Resources, Inc. (1985).

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