Anderson County, Tennessee is in the heart of Appalachia. It’s a bunch of tiny towns that together offer a huge experience for visitors. It has a very different history from most of urban United States. It offers unique culture and lots of outdoors adventures.
The most visited place in the county is the Secret City, Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was built from scratch in just 30 months. Prefabricated housing was brought in for workers and families. Most workers had no idea what they were building until the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima. Each work department was set up separately about seven miles apart to maintain the secrecy.
1. American Museum of Science and Energy
Begin your tour of the Secret City with exhibits on the Manhattan Project at the American Museum of Science and Energy. You get a fun and educational overview of nuclear physics and post-WWI history.
One exhibit at the museum is of the original workers’ houses. The homes used by working families were called flattop houses. These compact homes were hauled in on trucks and assembled in about 20 minutes complete with furniture and accessories. There’s also an exhibit on the guardhouse used to restrict entry to the secret city.
The most fascinating exhibit is a simple typewritten letter dated August 2, 1939, addressed to President Roosevelt, and signed by Albert Einstein. This may be the most famous letter ever written. Einstein thought Germany might be in the process of developing a bomb capable of immense destruction. His suspicions were based on the fact that Germany had increased its mining of uranium. President Roosevelt didn’t see the letter until October 11, 1939, about a month after Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt appointed a committee to look into the matter; the committee did not hold its first meeting until December 6, 1941, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Afterward, “suddenly the atomic bomb went from theory to necessity with no one knowing how, or if, such a device would work.”
Y12, called the New Hope Center, gives an overview of the Manhattan Project. This is where the Calutron Girls, mostly high school graduate young women, operated the calutron control panels. A calutron is a mass spectrometer used for separating the isotopes of uranium. The girls did not need any scientific training to monitor the controls. Y12 functions as the visitor’s center.
Hop on the tour bus. It stops at the Bethel Valley Church and graveyard and passes by the George Jones Memorial Baptist Church which are some of the very few remaining structures left from the original communities.
Next stop on the tour is the X10 Graphite Reactor where the elements needed to create an atomic reaction were extracted from raw uranium. The reactor, once the heart of the project, is now “manned” by mannequins. The mannequins represent the men who would have put small slugs of raw uranium into the holes of the reactor until it reached critical mass, the minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. You are now standing in the world’s first continually operating nuclear reactor. The guide will tell you it is perfectly safe as all radioactive material was buried deep underground.
Upstairs is the control room was where the results were tallied and recorded. In 1940 there were no computers, so all of this was recorded by hand. The logbook on display shows the entries on November 4, 1943 at 5 a.m. when the reactor first reached critical mass.
2. Jackson Square
At the heart of the city is Jackson Square, where residents celebrated WWII’s end. This is not part of the military complex, but is home to shops and restaurants. Nearby, you can step into the Alexander Inn, where important visitors would have stayed. Today it is an assisted living home, but the lobby has some photos and artifacts from its earlier use. Finally, visit the Chapel on the Hill; it is still in use as a place of worship for all denominations.
3. The Children’s Museum
For younger visitors, the Children’s Museum in Oak Ridge explains the Manhattan Project in simpler terms. There’s an exhibit of Ed Wescott’s photos of the project, a replica of the guardhouse, and many other exhibits that explain the events on a simpler level.
4. Norris Dam State Park
Norris Dam opened in 1933 just months after the Tennessee Valley Authority was established and was the first of the TVA dams. It is located on Norris Reservoir which has more than 800 miles of shoreline and offers RVing, camping, recreational boating, skiing, fishing, and more.
The park was the start of Tennessee’s state park system. The park is situated on 4,000 acres adjacent to the Norris Reservoir. You have a choice of the west campground with 50 sites or east campground with 25 sites, all with water and electric hook-up. There are 19 cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as 10 modern cabins. The park has a fully equipped marina, public boat ramp, and boat rentals for house, pontoon, and other boats. There is even a public swimming pool.
The dam and reservoir were part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal that aimed to spur the economy during the Great Depression. It had numerous opponents who called it “socialistic” but it served multiple purposes. It controlled the unpredictable floods on the Clinch River, it provided electricity at fair prices, and it created so many jobs that the government built the town of Norris for the contractors and workers building the dam. It was also one of the main reasons adjacent Oak Ridge was chosen for the Manhattan Project since there was ample power to run the electrical machinery.
5. Lenoir Museum
The Lenoir Museum, located near the park entrance, gives a glimpse of life here before the dam. It contains artifacts collected for over 60 years by Will G. Lenoir and his wife Helen. When Mr. Lenoir grew older, he told the state, “I’ll give you my collection if you build a building.” He then volunteered at the museum until he was 97. Each day he brought something else to add to the collection.
The rooms are furnished as they would have been in the early 1900s, and there are recreated shops and workspaces, pottery, and more. The prize of the collection is an antique Bavarian barrel organ from the early 1800s. It came to the museum totally unassembled. Mr. Lenoir found two tinkers who spent about 500 hours restoring it. Listening to it and seeing the intricate movement of the parts is amazing.
There are two buildings reminiscent of Appalachian life that were relocated to the museum grounds. The Rice Gristmill, was originally built in 1798 in Union County and disassembled and rebuilt where it stands today in 1935. The Caleb Crosby Threshing Barn was built in 1830s near the Holston River and relocated in 1978. It is filled with the tools a farmer used back in the 1930s, as well as plows and a horse-drawn wagon.
6. Museum of Appalachia
For one of the largest collections of Appalachian artifacts, visit the Museum of Appalachia in nearby Clinton.It is a Smithsonian affiliate with several buildings filled with artifacts, a recreated town, and a top-notch home-cooking style restaurant.
John Rice Irwin began a collection of artifacts and kept them in his back yard until his wife said, “Enough!” That was the start of the museum. Today, there are over 30 buildings on site reproducing every facet of Appalachian life. There’s a moonshine still, blacksmith’s shop, smokehouse, corn mill, schoolhouse, chapel, broom and rope house, and many cabins, including Mark Twain’s birthplace. The authenticity makes them all special.
There are two large buildings, Appalachian Hall of Fame and Display Barn, filled with thousands of exhibits. They are real structures moved from elsewhere in Appalachia. Each has its own story. You will be greeted by all the usual farm animals including sheep, chickens, cows, goats, horses, and even peacocks. As in real Appalachian villages there are several resident cats. This place really takes you back in time to a life that no longer exists but is too precious to be forgotten.
7. Coal Creek Miners Museum
This museum in Rocky Top (formerly Coal Creek) tells the story of the miners that lived, worked, and died in Coal Creek, Fraterville, and Briceville, Tennessee. There are pictures and artifacts focusing on three major crises in the area’s mining history, two mining disasters and the Coal Creek Wars.
In the years after the Civil War, industrialization swept the nation and created demand for lots of coal. Rich capitalists grew richer while the miners, who did the work that filled the capitalists’ bank accounts, were paid poorly. There’s a copy of a monthly paycheck invoice dated 1942 at the museum; a miner earned $341, owed $312, and was left with $29 in script.
To make matters worse, they got paid by weight mined and not hours worked. Many men began bringing their young sons down into the mine to assist. To add insult to injury, the man who checked the weight of the mined coal was a company employee, not a contract labor miner. All of this led to a miner’s strike in 1877. To counteract the effect of the strike, mine owners brought in convict labor at Knoxville Iron and Coal Company Mine (KICC) in the Wye Community.
Convict labor sprang up in the south to replace slave labor. The prisons would lease out convicts to companies. In the south they worked on plantations, in Tennessee and Kentucky it was mining. States began arresting people, mainly black people, and turning small charges that normally would have been about 30 days to a one year sentence. The companies wanted leased convicts to have at least a year to serve so they would not have to go to the expense of transporting and training them only to have them released soon after.
This practice of convict labor miners and free miners continued until it again came to a head with another strike in 1891. Miners in Anderson County, Tennessee demanded fairer treatment, ending the practice of payment in script, and the right to appoint their own weight checker.The Coal Creek War was considered by some as the last battle of the Civil War.
The local militia surrendered to the miners without firing a shot. The miners put the convicts on the train to Knoxville and sent a telegram to the governor saying they wanted no more convicts taking their jobs. Governor Buchanan sent in the militia from middle and west Tennessee, mostly the sons of Confederate veterans and commanded by former Confederate soldiers. Most of the convict laborers were black and they were fighting over the continued bondage of black people.
During the strike, Governor Buchanan offered the miners a compromise: they could return to work at their original mine and the convict laborers returning to the KICC Mine. The miners held out for “no convict labor at all” and finally ended the convict lease system in Tennessee. Other states later followed suit.
8. Coal Creek Motor Discovery Trail
You can follow the path of the Coal Creek War and the mine disasters via a marked trail; each marker tells a part of the story.
To protect the convict labor camp and the National Guard, the state built Fort Anderson on a spot overlooking Coal Creek in January 1892. It became known as Militia Hill and you can still see cannons and the remains of trenches here.
Walk a short way through the underbrush to an old railroad trestle bridge where a free miner, Dick Drummond, was hanged from one of the trestles on August 10, 1893 as a warning to others. Sixteen officers and enlisted men of the Tennessee National Guard were arrested for the crime; it is unknown whether there was a conviction. The bridge is supposedly haunted by Drummond’s ghost. The governor shut down Fort Anderson to avoid farther conflict.
The Fraterville Mine explosion occurred on May 19, 1902; 216 boys and men died in the disaster.The explosion was at the entrance so everybody working there was trapped. To get the bodies out rescuers had to go into an adjacent mine.
The second disaster was the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster where 85 people were killed when a mine roof caved in and trapped miners inside.
You can visit the Briceville Church and cemetery on the trail where many casualties of these disasters are buried.
Next drive on to Cross Mountain Miners’ Circle, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where a circular area is filled with the miners’ tombs. The church, built in 1888, was used as a temporary jail for captured miners during the Coal Creek War. There is an obelisk monument engraved with the names of all the known miners. Many of the tombstones bear inscriptions of last messages the trapped miners had written as they slowly suffocated in the mines. Powell Harmon’s stone has his final instructions for his sons: “My boys, never work in the coal mines.”
This part of Tennessee tells the history of that black rock that has taken the lives of so many miners and the stories of those miners.
9. Green McAdoo Cultural Center
On August 27, 1956, 12 young people in Clinton, Tennessee changed the world. They were the first students to join the newly desegregated Clinton High School. The centerpiece of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center is a sculpture depicting the 12 black students. They became known as the Clinton 12.
Step into the center that was once the Black School to learn more. This small room was the entire school classroom for kindergarten through 8th grade. Until 1956 they had to be bused to Fulton High School, a 45 minute drive, even though there was a public high school in Clinton. After the Brown v. Board decision, black parents sued and won. The resulting months are portrayed at the Green McAdoo Center with life-sized cutout figures and often disturbing documentation.
The first three days the 12 were at Clinton High School were relatively peaceful; Clinton’s citizens were law-abiding people. The local Baptist minister, Reverend Paul Turner, accompanied the young black students as they walked down from Foley Hill. It may sound like a done deal, but that was before a white supremacist named John Kasper came to Clinton.
Kasper came from Washington and began to stir up hatred. He was a leader of a group called the White Citizens’ Council who aimed to stop integration at all costs. He was aided by Asa Carter, a Mississippi segregationist. Reverend Turner was beaten by a group of white protestors. School principal David Brittain received death threats. Explosives were detonated in the black neighborhood.
One of the most moving exhibits is of a car with an African American family being attacked by a mob of angry whites trying to overturn the car. The sheriff formed a home guard to keep order and when that failed, the National Guard was called in to maintain peace. Kasper was arrested and tried for inciting a riot but acquitted.
The Clinton 12 persevered. The next year, the high school was destroyed by a bomb. The story features in another disturbing exhibit. However, the students, both black and white, went to Oak Ridge until Clinton High School was rebuilt. Then both races returned to continue their education in the integrated Clinton High School.
What came out of Oak Ridge can be looked at in many different ways. It ended a horrific war. It took the lives of many innocent civilians and impacted others even to present day. Was the result good or evil? That is still being debated. What is undeniable is that it changed the course of warfare forever. Man had unleashed a power that if misused could destroy the entire planet.
To visit Oak Ridge you will need a driver’s license from a compliant state same as at an airport. If you are from one of the noncompliant states, you will need to provide another form of approved identification.Foreign national visitors must always present a visa and passport upon arrival at the ORNL Visitor Center.
Last Updated on July 8, 2020