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Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at rapid speed beginning in 1942, the instant wartime cities of Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford/Richland, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico, revolved around military research. They held laboratories and sprawling industrial plants, but also residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and stores—war workers had personal lives and families, after all. At their peak in 1945, the three cities had a combined population of more than 125,000....
During the war, none of the cities appeared on any maps: They were the top-secret centers of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military’s initiative to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis got there first.
It starts with the site selection. That was a very critical aspect of the decision to locate these facilities in Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford. In each case, there were natural features, topographical features, that were considered to be favorable. In all three cases, they were somewhat remote—
The camp for construction workers at Hanford, Washington, ultimately housed upwards of 50,000 people, making it the fourth largest “city” in the state.
Aerial view of the K-25 plant, Oak Ridge, c. 1945. The K-25 plant was built for the enrichment of uranium through gaseous diffusion, in which gaseous U-235 was separated from U-238 through an incredibly fine mesh. The process was extremely space-intensive. When completed, K-25 was the largest building in the world under one roof.
A “Flat Top” house in Oak Ridge, 1944. One of the most common houses in Oak Ridge was this B-1 model, commonly known as the Flat Top. (Other Alphabet models had pitched roofs.) Each of these houses was built in a factory and transported by truck in two or three pieces to the site, where it was assembled atop a foundation. The architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) oversaw the planning of the city and the design and construction of most buildings within it.
African-American women hanging laundry in a “hutment” area, Oak Ridge, 1945. The secret cities of the Manhattan Project treated racial segregation as a given. In Oak Ridge, many African-American workers and some white workers lived in plywood “hutments.” The contrast between these crude, ill-heated huts and the comfortable housing built for most white workers was stark.
Los Alamos main gate, c. 1943. Anyone approaching Los Alamos during the war had to pass through at least two checkpoints.