Before visiting Oak Ridge for the first time I knew the Manhattan Project was the secret development of atomic bombs. But what I didn’t know was the concept of “secret cities” and revolutionary innovation in science and engineering that went into the project. I learned just a little bit more with each stop through the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
But exploring the national historical park can be confusing. Unlike more traditional national parks with everything located within the bounds of a park, the historic sites and museums of the Manhattan Project NHP are scattered throughout town and some are even located within Department of Energy secure facilities.
This travel guide to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park will help you figure out where to start your exploration in Oak Ridge, the key historical sites to visit, and where you need to go to learn all about the Manhattan Project in the Secret City.
What was the Manhattan Project?
From 1942-1946 General Leslie Groves oversaw the Manhattan Project, the code name given to the top-secret development of atomic bombs. The purpose of the project was to create the first functional atomic bombs to bring a swift end to World War II. While the project’s headquarters was at first located in New York City there were dozens of additional sites across the country, including three primary sites in Tennessee, Washington, and New Mexico.
In Oak Ridge, Tennessee facilities were built for the separation of the uranium-235 isotope. In Hanford, Washington the facilities were used for the creation of plutonium. In 1943 Project Y was built in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where J. Robert Oppenheimer assembled components from the other sites to create and test the first atomic bombs.
On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay bomber dropped “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, Japan, detonating the first atomic bomb used in warfare. Three days later another bomber, Bockscar, dropped “Fat Man” over Nagasaki. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered and officially brought WWII to an end.
Establishing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is a rather unique partnership between the National Park Service and Department of Energy. The park was created on November 10, 2015 when the NPS and DOE signed a Memorandum of Agreement to allow “eligible areas” to be opened to the public.
The Department of Energy owns and maintains many of the historic sites like the X-10 Graphite Reactor National Historical Landmark. Through the American Museum of Science and Energy the DOE operates a guided bus tour with stops at the still-active Y-12 National Security Complex and massive Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The National Park Service is tasked with administering, interpreting, and educating the public about the historical sites. The NPS hosts monthly activities, operates the visitor center and gift shop, and offers guided tours in cooperation with the DOE.
Begin at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Visitor Center
The Manhattan Project NHP Visitor Center is located in the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. The large building on a little hill is a great starting point for exploring the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.
Just inside the entrance to the museum is an NPS information desk and small giftshop. The giftshop has many of the typical items like books, clothing, and collectibles. The info desk has the National Park Passport cancellation stamp.
A volunteer at the desk gave me the park brochure packed with information about all three sites in the Manhattan Project NHP. But my favorite thing he gave me was a large map of Oak Ridge with all the historic sites, museums, and points of interest laid out. This was invaluable while I explored the national historical park across town.
READ MORE: 10 Awesome Things to Do in Oak Ridge, TN
Take the DOE Guided Bus Tour
While many of the historic sites are open to the public, two are located inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory complex: the X-10 Graphite Reactor and New Bethel Church. The only way to see these two sites is with the Department of Energy’s guided bus tour.
The DOE guided bus tour is one of the most exclusive bus tours I have ever come across. Because the tours cross through a national security zone they are limited to one tour per day on weekdays only. I strongly recommend reservations if you want to book this tour because seats are limited and often sell out fast. The tours are operated through the American Museum of Science and Energy and you can make reservations on their website here.
The guided bus tour was three hours long. I registered with the front desk at AMSE, met my tour guide Della Marshall, and boarded the sold-out bus with the other visitors. The comfortable seats, air conditioning, and large windows made the bus supremely comfortable for the long tour.
The first stop of the tour was the Y-12 History Center. We were treated to a short presentation in the auditorium and then invited to explore the exhibits in the museum space. The history center is open to the public and located just outside the Y-12 National Security Complex so you can actually visit this site on your own.
After leaving the Y-12 History Center the guided bus tour entered the Y-12 National Security Complex. A security guard boarded the bus for a few moments and verified all the documents. That’s when it really set in that we were going someplace cool and exclusive.
The guided bus tour made stops at New Bethel Church where we had about ten minutes to walk around the church and explore inside, and then we made a stop at the X-10 Graphite Reactor. This was my favorite stop on the tour as we explored inside the world’s first continuously operated nuclear reactor.
During the guided bus tour we drove around the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Spallation Neutron Source, and former site of the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Although we couldn’t make stops our tour guide Della explained everything as we slowly drove past.
Here are a few additional tips for making the most of the DOE Guided Bus Tour:
- You must be a U.S. citizen with a valid photo ID (if you are 18 or older)
- Arrive at AMSE no later than 10:45am; bus loads at 11:15am and promptly departs at 11:30am
- Leave your pocket knife, handgun, and food in your vehicle
- Bring a bag or purse smaller than 12”x12”
- Camera bags and cases of any size are not allowed
- Bring a bottle of water
- Use the restroom at AMSE before you leave; the only other restrooms on the three-hour tour at the Y-12 New Hope Center
Explore the American Museum of Science and Energy
The American Museum of Science and Energy had one of the most modern, interactive, and impressive exhibit displays I have ever come across in a science museum (a lifetime ago I worked at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh so I might know a thing or two). I highly recommend waiting until after the DOE Guided Bus tour to visit this museum just to give yourself enough time to explore everything.
The museum is divided into several areas that expound on the science behind the Manhattan Project, the continuing nuclear weapons missions at the Y-12 National Security Complex, current research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and touches on other next-gen scientific developments. Be sure to watch the short film on the Manhattan Project; in fact this might be the one thing you could do before the DOE bus tour.
The interactive displays, behind-the-scenes science, and innovative engineering made this museum absolute geek heaven.
Drive Out to the K-25 Overlook Visitor Center
On the map and all around town this is referred to as the K-25 Overlook, however all you can see is the rooftops of a few buildings across the K-25 site. Instead, I think of it more like an unmanned visitor center packed with information about the historic site.
It’s only about a ten-minute drive along Oak Ridge Turnpike to the K-25 Site. Some parts of this former secure complex are open to the public but I wouldn’t really recommend driving around on your own. Instead, go to the K-25 Overlook Visitor Center.
The visitor center has lots of information about the Secret City of Oak Ridge, Manhattan Project, and the purpose of the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant. My favorite part was the really cool timeline of events that happened during the Manhattan Project and throughout Oak Ridge.
Coming Soon: The K-25 History Museum
It’s not exactly breaking news but I’m still happy to announce the Department of Energy is building a brand-new K-25 History Museum! When the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant was finished it was the largest building in the world under one roof. The plant operated from 1944-1985 enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants.
After the K-25 Plant was shut down the gargantuan building and dozens of smaller support buildings went through decades of decontamination. In the past few years it was all finally demolished. Although the building is gone the ginormous foundation remains and will become the focal point of a history museum.
The DOE is working to build the K-25 History Museum at the edge of the foundation of the former plant. The museum will include exhibits on the Manhattan Project, the process of enriching uranium, and the history of the plant. A 70’ tall observation tower will provide visitors with a bird’s eye view of the massive foundation.
Visit the Oak Ridge History Museum
The Oak Ridge History Museum was the single best place I visited to learn about the history of the town of Oak Ridge. The entire town was built from scratch by a local contracting company under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers with homes shipped in on trains and the population surged from just 13,000 to over 70,000 in a few years.
The Oak Ridge History Museum explores how the town was built, the architecture of the unique homes like Flat Tops and Victory Cottages, and life in the Secret City. It was the place where I fully understood the deep patriotism people felt for living in Oak Ridge under complete secrecy knowing they were helping the war effort.
Give yourself about an hour to walk through this fascinating museum. It’s divided into several different rooms so be sure to catch it all! At the end check out their collection of books written about the history of the town and Manhattan Project. I bought a copy of For Your Information, a reprint of the original handbook given to new residents in Oak Ridge. This book includes all the information people would need to know about living here and even a pull-out map!
See the International Friendship Bell
The International Friendship Bell is located in Bissell Park across the street from the Oak Ridge History Museum. Park anywhere at the Oak Ridge Civic Center and walk out to see this beautiful monument.
The 7’ tall, 4-ton bronze bell was cast in Japan in 1993 and brought to the city of Oak Ridge to celebrate the city’s 50th anniversary. It’s a monument to peace and friendship between Japan and the United States in hopes that another world war will never happen.
The project was proposed by Shigeko and Ram Uppuluri. After the original pavilion deteriorated this new pavilion was built as the new home to the monument.
Stroll Through the Secret City Commemorative Walk
On the other side of the civic center is the Secret City Commemorative Walk. This small park offers a walk through history along concrete paths beneath the shade of massive trees.
The park includes four Founder Walls with the names of original residents in Oak Ridge, a series of bronze historical markers providing insight into life in the Secret City, and another series of bronze tablets detailing the chronological story of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.
Book a Guided Tour with Ray Smith
My favorite part of exploring the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge was hanging out with local historian Ray Smith. With years of experience telling the story of life in the Secret City, Calutron Girls, and enrichment of uranium, Ray was a wonderful tour guide.
Visitors can book private tours with Ray Smith through Explore Oak Ridge or the American Museum of Science and Energy. Ray offers custom-tailored tours ranging from small groups or families to 60 passenger bus tours. If you spend a weekend in Oak Ridge I highly recommend booking a tour with Ray to learn details you won’t find on any exhibit display around town.
You can also find his book series, Historically Speaking, on his website here.
Where to Eat, Sleep, and Play in Oak Ridge
Visiting the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is an easy day trip drive from Knoxville but you would really miss out on exploring the town. There are plenty of things to do in Oak Ridge to keep you busy beyond the day time exploration of the national historical park.
There are lots of great (and I mean really great) hotels in Oak Ridge. There are always lots of travelers coming to town for work at the Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. TownePlace Suites is built for long-term visitors with a full kitchen in all of their rooms. Along with a sofa bed it’s the perfect place for a family to spend the weekend.
If you’re looking for something more affordable the Quality Inn and Comfort Inn are both great places with comfortable rooms. One of my favorite hotel chains has long been Holiday Inn Express, and their location in Oak Ridge doesn’t disappoint. They have various rooms with a double bed, king bed, and two queen beds.
Stretch your legs at the University of Tennessee Arboretum or Haw Ridge Park. Want to do some shopping? Head over to Jackson Square. One of the original squares built during the Manhattan Project has been taken over as a sort of “downtown” square for the town. The Ferrell Shop, Through the Looking Glass Antiques, and Southern Bliss Boutique offer some nice shopping.
While you’re in Jackson Square you might want to grab something to eat at the iconic Big Ed’s Pizza or head over to Dean’s Restaurant for some classic Southern food. Take a short drive out to Calhoun’s for fantastic food and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Melton Lake. For a good start to the day grab a delicious breakfast at Jefferson Fountain or come back in the afternoon for a root beer float.