The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was created in 1942 when the U. S. Government bought up a large section of land along the Clinch River in Anderson county for a secret defense project. Construction began immediately after the residents of the area were moved off the property, much like the Tennessee Valley Authority had done when they bought up land for dams. Many locals, as well as people from all over the country, went to work building what would become plants that separated uranium-235 to be used in the first atomic bomb.
Between 1942 and 1945 the population of Oak Ridge grew to 75,000 residents with employment at approximately 82,000. The plants ran continuously to produce the Uranium 235 needed for the secret project and construction struggled to keep up with growth. After the war ended these numbers fell drastically. By 1950 the City of Oak Ridge had a population of 30,205, still fifth largest in Tennessee. Employment decreased, too, especially in construction. But the plants continued to run producing the fuel for the atomic age.
In my latest novel, A War Apart, my heroine, Rosemary, took a job at Oak Ridge to support the war effort, earn some money and, most of all, to get away from home. She worked in the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant which used one method of separating Uranium-235 from Uranium-238. Her cousin, Martha Sue, worked in the Y-12 electromagnetic plant which used a different method for separating Uranium-235. Neither woman, nor any of the workers, knew what they were making because secrecy about the project was of highest priority.
In the 1950’s when I was a young child, my uncle worked at Oak Ridge. My sister and I visited for a week. Our cousins showed us around the area where they lived and played, then on the weekend, when our parents came to get us, my uncle showed us around Oak Ridge. All I remember is the car stopping in front of a big metal gate and Uncle John saying that was as far as we could go. When I was older, our family returned to Oak Ridge and went to the Atomic Energy Museum. I still have a dime that was irradiated there.
As I learned more about Oak Ridge I found the story of its origin fascinating. That such a highly technical and highly secret plant could be built and run in rural Tennessee sounded implausible, if not impossible. Yet it really happened. Later, I learned that many of the women who worked at Oak Ridge during the war were young women from Tennessee with no special training, just a willingness to work and follow directions. So, of course, one of these young women had to be the heroine in one of my stories. When my character, Rosemary, needed a job, Oak Ridge provided the perfect place for her to work.
In doing research for my novel, A War Apart, I primarily used three books for my research on Oak Ridge. They were “City Behind A Fence” by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson, “Images of America Oak Ridge” by Ed Westcott, and “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan.