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Life During the Manhattan Project

At this point in time, most of us have heard about the Manhattan Project and Secret City, now known as Oak Ridge, but what you may not know is what life was like during the Manhattan Project. To learn more about it, we stopped by the Oak Ridge History Museum and met with Lloyd and Betty Stokes, both of whom have been collecting artifacts for 65 years and have fathers that worked for the Manhattan Project. 

Before we dive into what life was like, here is a quick recap of the Manhattan Project

In 1942 Hitler had forces over the entirety of Europe and our forces at Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan. The United States was ready for drastic measure to win the war and so the Manhattan Project was created by President Roosevelt to create nuclear weapons. The government chose Oak Ridge, also known at the time as Site X as a “Secret City” where the nation’s top minds could come together and assemble raw materials into weapons. Oak Ridge was chosen for a variety of reasons; hydroelectric power was easily available thanks to the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority and it was a large rural area offering a remote location and small population size (less families to displace). Construction of the city was very quick, and of course secret as almost no one involved knew what they were designing a city for. Housing was built to originally accommodate 13,000 people, but by 1945 the population had reached 75,000 making Oak Ridge the fifth largest city in Tennessee, but it could not be found on a single map! The workers that were recruited to Oak Ridge from all around the country didn’t even know what they were working on. Now, think about that for a minute. Isn’t it mind boggling to think it was all kept a secret? 

Why work for the Manhattan Project?

Many people joined the Manhattan Project workforce because it offered lucrative wages during a time of uncertainty. Although the majority of workers had no idea what they were working on, they were willing to move to a new part of the country because the pay was good and the cost of living was cheap. Patriotism was another reason people jumped on board. The country was in an uncertain state and people wanted to help in any way they could, even if that meant it was kept top secret.  Word began spreading fast and the Manhattan Project had no trouble building its workforce. As a matter of fact, population in the Secret City grew so fast that housing became an issue. 

Housing during the Manhattan Project 

The sudden growth caused the local population to grow from about 13,000 to 75,000 in 1945. Materials were in short supply, so the first houses were built of prefabricated panels of cement and asbestos or cemesto board. They were known as “alphabet houses” because each of the home designs was assigned a letter of the alphabet. Some of these houses remain in Oak Ridge today.   Later, thousands of prefabricated houses were sent to Oak Ridge in sections complete with walls, floors, room partitions, plumbing and wiring. Workers turned over 30 or 40 houses each day. Homes were going up so fast that Betty remembered a time when her mother had to put her name on a piece of paper and stick it in the front window of their home, so Betty would know which home was hers after school. Trailers, wood dormitories and temporary housing known as hutments, were also common during this time. Many of which shared bath and laundry houses.  It wasn’t unheard of for multiple families to share a residence. The type of job you held and the number of children you had were two, among others, of the determining factors of the type of housing you would be assigned.  Lloyd said his father came to Oak Ridge from Illinois in January 1944 and at that point housing wasn’t available for his whole family. He shared a room with five other men. His family moved to Oak Ridge a few months later when housing was available.  It’s safe to say, most residents had little to no privacy during their time working on the Manhattan Project.   

Typical Day in the Life

A typical day in the life of a Manhattan Project Worker consisted of completing shift work without a whisper of what they were working on.  Workers had very strict rules about what could and could not be said. In fact, all around the site, large signs could be seen reminding the workers to be silent. In addition to the strict rules, armed guards were constantly patrolling the area, people and vehicles were searched anytime they entered or left the site, so it’s not surprising that keeping morale high became a priority.   In order to keep spirits high among the large population of workers, a recreation department was created to provide social, welfare and recreation activities. There were five different housing sections and each one had its own recreation areas. Workers attended dance parties and movie nights.

They had bowling alleys, tennis courts, skating rinks, ball fields– just about anything you can think of to keep the workers happy. Leagues were formed and clubs were created, making the lives of workers less isolated and therefore happier. Most workers did not own vehicles, so everything was either within walking distance or was accessible by bus.

In addition to the recreation activities, the Army imported nearly 200 small businesses into the Secret City. These included department stores, drug stores, shoe shops, barber shops, grocery stores and a bank.  This information is just a glimpse into the daily life of a Manhattan Project worker. The size of the Manhattan Project is hard to fathom and the fact that it was kept a secret is almost unbelievable. 

The Oak Ridge History Museum does a phenomenal job of sharing the story in detail of not only the work that took place, but also the lives of the workers. We highly recommend a visit to the museum to learn more. The museum is located at 102 Robertsville Road in Oak Ridge. Hours are Thursday and Fridays 10 am to 2 pm and Saturday from 10 am to 3 pm. Private group tours can be arranged.