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Atomic tourism...

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PostPosted: Mon May 23, 2005 5:04 pm    Post subject: Atomic tourism... Reply with quote

An article in a Chicago newspaper is giving me some hints about the form that heritage tourism may take here...

I found the article at http://www.suntimes.com/output/travel/tra-news-detours22.html. It was published May 22, 2005.

'Secret City' starting to protect its atomic past

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The old-timers who live in Oak Ridge gather every weekday morning at the Jefferson Soda Fountain on North Jefferson Circle. They gossip and tell secrets over sweet Tennessee country ham and three-saucer pancakes (blueberries, strawberries, pecans). When a stranger walks into the soda fountain, all eyes move up and down like morning reveille. There are thousands of diners like this through the historic mid-South -- but you meet history in Oak Ridge.

Wow! Is the Jefferson Soda Fountain going to be a tourist stop? I can imagine it happening -- I know that I enjoy stopping to eat in places that offer "local color."

The article continues with the kind of local history details that most Oak Ridgers know almost by heart...
...The city was established in 1942 for the Manhattan Project, which produced the world's first atomic weapons. Army Corps of Engineers Gen. Leslie Groves also chose Los Alamos, N.M., and Richland, Wash., for the project, but more money was spent on Oak Ridge than the other two sites combined....

...Located in a hidden valley about 20 miles northwest of Knoxville, Oak Ridge became known as "The Secret City."

The article goes on to tell about this year's Secret City Festival, including the premiere of a part of Keith McDaniel's six-hour documentary film "Secret City: The Oak Ridge Story" on June 16 at the Tinseltown movie theater. It also tells about the CD-guided driving tour of the city.

I find it interesting to read visitors impressions of the city. This travel writer was impressed by name of the Atomic Pawn shop:
Oak Ridge now embraces its heritage. The Atomic Pawn shop was next to the Hampton Hotel where I stayed. The facade of Oak Ridge High School is adorned with a huge atom. The tidy, linear look of Oak Ridge was laid out by Skidmore, Owings, Merilll in New York City. Their design continues as Oak Ridge develops.

Interesting local residents aren't normally on a tourist's itinerary, but they are important part of a travel writer's diet. This writer feasted on Bill Wilcox:
But an everlasting treasure of a visit to Oak Ridge is meeting someone like William Wilcox Jr.

Wilcox, 82, is a chemist who worked on the atom bomb. He is an ebullient figure partially defined by his fine collection of bright bow ties. Wilcox enjoys sharing a story he had to keep secret for many years. "In 1942 there were 3,000 people living here," Wilcox said in a conversation over breakfast at the soda fountain. (The blueberry pancakes with blueberry syrup are out of this world; $3.99.) "They cleared everyone out and started from scratch. By 1945 the population went to 75,000 -- and the town never appeared on a map."

Wilcox came to town in 1943. Plant managers hired Wilcox out of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. He was 20 years old. The town was known as Clinton Engineer Works, named after the county seat. Oak Ridge didn't become "Oak Ridge" until 1949. "People arrived in 1943 from all over the country," said Wilcox, a native of Allentown, Pa. "We were hired by contractors who built the plants. The first plant built here cost $500 million. Its code name was Y-12."

Y-12 is still standing. Most of the nation's uranium is stored and protected at Y-12. The plant is still used to manufacture components for U.S. nuclear weapons. In the early 1940s, Y-12 was used to separate Uranium-235 (a light form of uranium ore that is in the ground) from Uranium-238 (a heavier uranium) for the first atomic bomb. More than 22,000 people worked at Y-12. Plant K-25 is where the uranium was separated. The K-25 building covers 44 acres under one roof. It is larger than the Pentagon. At the time it was built, K-25 was the largest building in the world.

A separate X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge was operated by the University of Chicago metallurgical laboratory. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the building consists of a huge graphite block, measuring 24 feet on each site, surrounded by several feet of concrete as a radiation shield. X-10's first major challenge was to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction, which was accomplished early on Nov. 4, 1943, with physicist Enrico Fermi in the house.

"As soon as the Fermi discovery was made in 1942 (in Chicago), they had to build a bigger one," Wilcox explained. "The University of Chicago wanted it to be at Argonne. They knew they couldn't build it at Stagg Field. But the Manhattan Project people were concerned about radiation escaping from the plant and how it could be a giveaway to the project. They were also worried about safety. For that reason, they said, 'Let's put it in East Tennessee.' They thought it would be better hidden here."

The X-10 is the oldest reactor in the world and is open for public tours. (865-576-3200). The K-25 plant is being dismantled and will be gone by 2008. The Secret City Scenic Excursion Train (see sidebar calendar) rolls through K-25 (now East Tennessee Technology Park). Y-12 is open only through pre-registration (http://www.secretcityfestival.com). The tour is limited to 600 people.

Wilcox leaned over and whispered, "The way they kept all this a secret is how they insisted everybody just be told what their own job was. I knew my job exactly. It was to take impure uranium that was washed off the surfaces of machines that separated the isotopes and to purify the uranium to have it separated one more time. I did not know what the end result was going to be. I did not know what was going on in other buildings."

Wow. This was not breakfast talk at Mayberry, R.F.D. How did Wilcox feel when the bomb was dropped?

"Oak Ridgers had the same incredible reaction of people all over the United States," he answered. "Because most of them had no concept of the scope of what they we were working on. We were thrilled to find out it was this big a deal. We knew early on the morning of Aug. 6 (1945). On Aug. 9 the second bomb was dropped (on Nagasaki) and the Emperor (Hirohito) said it was time to stop this war. Nobody in Oak Ridge gloried in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese. It was terrible, but you have to look at it in the context of the war. We brought an end to this terrible conflict." When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Oak Ridge paper's front-page headline read "OAK RIDGE ATTACKS JAPANESE."

Wilcox's three children never knew what their father did for a living. "When you accepted employment, you signed a security agreement that you would not tell anybody anything that was going on here," Wilcox said. "Everyone was curious. You just made up stories, like we were making lights for the back end of burnt out lightning bugs. Or we were building a community for officers returning home from the war."

The people who lived in "The Secret City" had their own social structure. Everyone wore a badge. The town was open 24 hours. Lines for goods were long because the size of the city was not known. The locals' favorite line was, "If there's a line, there's bound to be something at the end of the line, so I'll get in line." Residents had their own community playhouse, where I dare say no actor ever bombed. During the summer a disc jockey hosted nightly big-band dances on the Oak Ridge Tennis Courts. It was the only paved, flat area in town. "At the peak, there were 13,000 singles here," Wilcox said. "We all lived behind the fence in 90 dormotories. But everyone was a stranger. There was no 'old money' here at all. It was like a college campus."

Wilcox met his wife, Jeanie Holder, while working at Oak Ridge. She was a secretary. "I chased her around town for three years before I could get her to marry me," he said. They have been married for 58 years.

After the war ended, Oak Ridge became the birthplace for dental X-ray shielding, hip joints and the Apollo Mission Moonbox. Wilcox said, "As soon as the war was over in 1945, people that worked here started thinking on how to apply nuclear science to peace-time applications."

With a giving smile, Wilcox said, "The culture here was unusual. There was no jobless. We all had a reason for being here, which was to do whatever we could to help our country. The war news was never far from everybody's mind. There was a feeling of trust and camaraderie that bound people together."

Reading something like that should give people the impression that Oak Ridge would be a fascinating destination for a trip. Thumbs Up

Last edited by Ellen on Wed May 25, 2005 8:30 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Wed May 25, 2005 8:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Although that story is impressive, a companion story by the same writer made me a little bit nervous.
Atom bomb spurred music

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The specter of the atom bomb ignited a whole genre of American roots music. One of the best bomb records is the soundtrack album to the 1982 movie "Atomic Cafe." The songs were compiled by Dr. Charles Wolfe, the nation's foremost expert on atomic music.

It's a 540-mile trip from Chicago to Oak Ridge, Tenn. Here's some atomic music for an explosive road mix tape:

# "Atomic Cocktail," Slim Galliard Quartette (but then Slim also cut "Penicillin Boogie")
# "You Dropped a Bomb On Me," The Gap Band
# "Atom Bomb Baby," doo-wop by The Five Stars
# "Atom Bomb," the current album from the Blind Boys of Alabama
# "Hiroshima," Todd Rundgren
# "Atom and Evil," Golden Gate Quartet
# "Old Man Atom," Sons of the Pioneers
# "The Great Atomic Power," Louvin Brothers
# "Bombs Away," Bob Weir
# "Uranium," the Commo-dores (circa 1957)
# "Tennessee Breakdown," The Dillards
# "Masters of War," Bob Dylan
# "When the Atom Bomb Fell," Karl and Harty (recorded in December 1945 and generally regarded as the first song written about the atom bomb). Karl and Harty were a brother team who were regulars on WLS and WJJD in Chicago.

# And of course, "Eve of Destruction," Barry McGuire.

Also visit Atomic Platters, Geerhart's Periodic Table of Atomic Music at http://www.conelrad.com/media/atomicmusic/sh_boom.html.

Hmm... I guess we need to accept the fact that the Cold War, including fear of the bomb and duck-and-cover drills, is a part of history with which Oak Ridge is inextricably connected. Shocked

Maybe local entrepreneurs can even find a way to embrace that heritage. That Conelrad website is a cornucopia of Cold War pop culture that might inspire a profitable Cold War kitsch shop. Cool-Red
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