The “Secret City” of Oak Ridge has a fascinating history that started back in the 1940s. If you read my blog Secret City of Bombs and Mud or are interested in the Manhattan Project, you may already know about Oak Ridge’s incredible past. Now it is a mecca for science, innovation, and recreation.
For this entry I chose Oingo Boingo’s “Weird Science.” Who does not love Danny Elfman?
Weird Science- AMSE & DOE
The American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) offers a Department of Energy bus tour. Monday-Friday you can board the bus at 11:15 and get a 2.5-hour behind the scenes tour.
There are several cool sculptures, monuments, and demonstrations in front of the museum, like the Whisper Dish below. Two dishes sit around two hundred feet apart, and with a bit of scientific sorcery someone can hear you whispering at the other dish.
Inside AMSE is a massive collection of posters, documents, presentations, memorabilia, and other artifacts of the Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge’s humble yet impressive beginnings.
White women and African-American/ Black men and women comprised a high percentage of the work force during the Manhattan Project. I appreciate the inclusiveness of the memorials as much as the museum’s frankness about how differently each respective group was treated.
Unfortunately I was limited in what I could take photos of due to time, but you can read more about this in Secret City of Bombs and Mud.
The DOE Tour
The tour bus was full minus two seats, which is more people than I care to be around at once but common for such an awesome tour. I was pleased to learn that children under ten years of age are not permitted so the prospect of being able to hear the tour guide was reassuring.
It was cool, clean, and comfortable inside the bus. The guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and some even worked in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project so they were able to share firsthand experiences. The best part of the tour may have been watching them glow with pride while sharing their fascinating lives with us.
A word of advice is to pay extremely close attention to signs/directions about where you can and can NOT take photos on this tour.
First stop was the Y-12 New Hope Visitors Center for a brief history lecture and a tour of artifacts (no photos), followed by a visit to the New Bethel Baptist Church and Cemetery, aka Bethel Valley Church.
Next was the Graphite Reactor; the world’s oldest nuclear reactor and what is now a registered national historic landmark. This site is where plutonium was developed and played a crucial in the creation of the atom bomb.
Workers had to climb high up on ladders to monitor and refill designated spaces according to a legend and other gauges around the clock. One missed step would have been disastrous.
The Graphite Reactor was my favourite stop of the tour. We were encouraged to climb the stairs and tour the control rooms, check out all the gears and graphs, and endure the same hot/humid conditions they did in this building with no air conditioning system.
After leaving the Graphite Reactor we were driven through a couple security checkpoints that are closed to the public, then past the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) and East Tennessee Technology Park Heritage Center– formerly K-25.
K-25, known now as the East Tennessee Technology Park, was once a sector called Happy Valley’s “Coney Island Fairway.” This fairway was a major attraction for sideshow and music, dance nights, and social clubs.
Most buildings inside the K-25 community have been demolished now, as well as over half of the plant itself. Efforts being made toward revitalizing this dilapidated site are not worth noting.
Admission to AMSE is $5 and includes fare on the DOE bus tour but seats are first come, first serve. I would encourage anyone planning to attend to check in at 9 am sharp when the doors open.
For those who have kids that are not permitted on the tour, or those who are young at heart, you can still bring them to the AMSE museum itself and to the Children’s Museum nearby.
The AMSE and DOE tour are part of the greater Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a combination of physical locations you can visit and of online archives resourced from all three nuclear sites in Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford.
Oak Ridge is only a few minutes outside of Knoxville and is perfect for a day trip, mini, or full vacation. It is surrounded on the east end by nearly 200 miles of Melton Lake shoreline, multiple parks, rowing and paddle boarding centers, boat access points, swimming coves, and almost six miles of greenways which makes it an ideal city for outdoor recreation.
Heading from Knoxville to Oak Ridge, take exit 170 for Edgemoor Road and keep right. You will reach Solway Park and then Haw Ridge Park & Bicycle trailhead first.
Further on you will see Chestnut Ridge Park and then Melton Lake Park. Between these parks is the greenway that runs between the road and Melton Lake, to the Oak Ridge Rowing Association & outdoor center.
We saw so many people swimming, kayaking, having cookouts, walking their dogs, and just hanging out on blankets. I will be returning my next free weekend that falls below 90 degrees F.
Continue on Edgemoor Road until you reach the Oak Ridge Turnpike, and turn right. This will lead you to Elza Gate Park and then on to Gibbs Ferry Veteran Memorial Park
From there you could continue on Oak Ridge Turnpike into Clinton, or make a U-turn that will take you into the heart of Oak Ridge.
AK Bissel Park is a large city park on the main drag in Oak Ridge, right in the center of everything.
This is the home of the famous International Friendship Bell which was a gift from Japan symbolizing peace and friendship with the city of Oak Ridge, and a bond to work together in new scientific developments.
Each summer the AK Bissell park hosts the Secret City Festival, and this year it will be from 7-9 June.
Admission is free and you can see live jazz/swing bands playing hits from the wartime era, military demonstrations, food trucks, lectures, films, and more.
Near the park is the Oak Ridge municipal center which has some interesting fountains and whale-like sculptures.
Where to Shop, Eat, & Drink
During the Manhattan Project, workers were sanctioned into communities. Each had its own town square where residents at respective plants could purchase their food, clothing, home goods, or visit the cafeterias.
Because of this Oak Ridge lacks a central downtown area, but has many clusters of interesting places instead.
From even a slight distance, Jackson Square is easy to miss altogether. The square once known as “Townsite” is flat, the buildings are dull, and there are no signs that stand out.
A closer look will lead you to local art and clothing, vintage and antique items, handcrafted instruments, home goods, decor, gifts, kitchen wares, and gourmet ingredients.
Through the Looking Glass and The Ferrell Shop are two that I stop in every time, though I often find myself in the music store too.
Dean’s Restaurant & Bakery has been here forever and has great comfort/southern food. Below is the pot roast, scalloped potatoes, and grilled squash.
On the back side of Jackson Square is Big Ed’s Pizza, the Soup Kitchen, Gallo Loco, Greenwich Village mall, and a local artist cooperative gallery.
Razzleberry’s hot pink pig mascot has always freaked me out. There are hot pink pigs painted all over the inside and outside of the building. Hot pink pig delivery vans and hot pink pigs of all shapes and sizes; stuffed ones, wooden ones, metal ones, paper ones. They are everywhere.
Finally I worked past this and had a nice meal there. I forgot to ask the owners if they used to run the original Homeland Cafe because they also serve authentic Slavic, German, and other national cuisines.
I was sad to see Homeland Cafe be replaced by a Mexican restaurant a few years ago, but what was lost then is regained here.
And to clarify: I love Mexican food, it’s just that there are dozens upon dozens of Mexican restaurants nearby. I know of at least fifteen within a mile radius of my home in Knoxville.
There are five within half a mile of my job and I visit them all so often they know my name and food preferences by heart. But I do have a fondness for Slavic and German food and am not always up for cooking my own.
My brother had the grilled German bologna sandwich and I opted for the daily special; corned beef on rye to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.
In between bites of my sandwich I thanked them in Polish and somehow found the courage to resist getting late-morning drunk on Slovakian beers.
The Oak Ridge Playhouse keeps local theatre alive and has been in production since opening for workers of the Manhattan Project in 1943.
A landscaped breezeway with info plaques adjoins the ORPH to shops on the other side of the square.
On a different day we visited Grove Center, home of the historic Grove Theatre.
The Grove Theatre used to be the town’s largest and newest music hall but now hosts everything from metal shows, punk proms, and church on Sundays.
Grove Center also has a laundromat, convenience store, florist, various offices, Hibachi Burger restaurant, and The Other One deli.
I have corned beef maybe once per year, but incidentally ended up with another corned beef sandwich at The Other One, just as I had at Razzleberry’s months ago.
Reubens here are on grilled marbled rye, which is exciting for me because most places serve rye and other specialties steamed which just is not right. They have a chipotle Russian dressing if you like yours with a kick.
Outdoor seating is plentiful with refurbished booths covered in marine flags, dogs are welcome, and you have a good view of the Oak Ridge Pool across the street.
Donut Palace is further down the Turnpike and is a great place to pick up a sweet treat or coffee. They have so many varieties that change from day to day.
We chose a chocolate coconut donut and a lemon cream cheese-filled donut.
Back when I lived in Oak Ridge, there was nothing to do after 10 pm. My coworkers and I would close down the bookstore and dash into Applebee’s to grab a last call beer and a take-home meal before they shut down.
The DOE tour did not exist, the mall and music/book exchange store had gone under, and the restaurants were primarily fast food or family-style that frowned upon groups of younger adults assembling for drinks.
It has been great seeing all the new and especially local-owned businesses that have come up in recent years, each time I visit.
Crafter’s Brew is an eccentric bar right on the Turnpike that has a great selection of beers and hosts fun events throughout the week.
The front patio is filled with all sorts of kooky blow up animals, mannequins, fountains, fake palm trees, beach decor, and kitsch.
Additional stores and restaurants line the Oak Ridge Turnpike all the way to its intersection of Illinois Avenue, and if you take a left you will find everything from sushi to bowling, hotels, and some “big box” chains. This part of town lacks the historic feel I enjoy from the east end but has a lot to offer.
In the Solway area of Oak Ridge where you enter from or exit back to Knoxville, there is a cool shopping center with antique, retro, and salvage pieces plus new local artisan works and Nicky’s Pizza.
For more information about the City of Oak Ridge, stop by the Tourist Office or the Midtown Community Center History Museum.
Taking an extended stay in Oak Ridge and looking for more things to do in the area? Follow me to Norris and Clinton.
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