Born in war and rich in natural beauty, Oak Ridge is the “Secret City” with a big story to tell. From the peaceful waterfront to the innovative achievements, there is always more to explore in Oak Ridge.
Oak Ridge is home to four outstanding museums, sure to delight both children and adults. The American Museum of Science and Energy is newly remodeled and reimagined, the K-25 History Museum is brand new for 2020 and an absolute must-see, the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum is a wonderful museum built with kids in mind, and the Oak Ridge History Museum showcases the people’s history of Oak Ridge.
History of Oak Ridge
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the city of Oak Ridge didn’t even exist. In an effort to end the war, the U.S. government purchased rural farmland in 1942 and rapidly built the city of Oak Ridge, which would play a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project. Just two and a half years later, the Secret City skyrocketed to a population of 75,000, making it the fifth-largest city in Tennessee at the time
In 1943, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then known only as the Clinton Engineer Works, was conspicuously absent from any map. On 60,000 acres of farmland framed by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it was one of the United States’ three secret cities—remote sites chosen by Manhattan Project director Gen.
Leslie Groves evacuated their civilian inhabitants and developed it for the specific purpose of producing an atomic bomb. The men and women of the Clinton Engineer Works would help provide the material for the bomb.
10 best exciting things to do in Oak Ridge, TN
Oak Ridge has a lot of great things to offer for its visitors other than its rich history. Here is what we think are the most exciting activities for you to do while traveling through the “Secret land” of the United States.
Discover More Fascinating Things at the American Museum of Science and Energy
Where Science and History Come Alive! The redesigned American Museum of Science and Energy is dedicated to scientific development in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the history of the Manhattan Project in the region. Lots of hands-on exhibits, a rotating exhibit gallery, and the famous Van de Graaff generator.
The American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) tells the story of America’s undertaking of the atomic age. Just as the technology coming from Silicon Valley is changing the world, the technical marvels that came from Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project changed history and gave us the world we live in.
AMSE’s science and exhibits highlight the historic roots that lead to smartphone technology, 3D printing, national security, and super-computing, not to mention life-saving cancer treatments. Big science is what AMSE is all about and we’ve been sharing since the 1940s.
Science has evolved and developed into ideas and machines that influence, shape, and inspire the world around us today and well into the future. Experience hands-on displays, exhibits, camps, and special events that help science and history come alive.
Reveal the secret history at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park
For over a decade, the Department of Energy and National Park Service, in cooperation with other Federal agencies, state and local governments, and other stakeholders, pursued the possibility of including the Department’s most significant Manhattan Project properties within a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The park is composed of three separate sites, in Washington, New Mexico, and Tennessee, that each played a significant role in The Manhattan Project. These parks recently opened back in 2015 to educate the public about the history and legacy of this top-secret project by the U.S. Government.
In addition, one of the reasons for establishing these national historical parks is to enlighten the public that the project went beyond its main intention to develop weapons. It also paved the way for numerous space travel, energy production, and nuclear medicine successes.
Meanwhile, during your visit to the park in Oak Ridge, you can tour various historical buildings, including the B Reactor, a former plutonium-producing reactor.
Explore the Oak Ridge History Museum
While the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the American Museum of Science and Energy offer visitors the backstory of the atomic age, the Oak Ridge History Museum focuses on the historical perspective of this city.
Contrastingly, the local museum offers visitors other aspects of the history of the Manhattan Project, particularly the people behind it. Moreover, the museum also has an exhibit telling how people in Oak Ridge lived their lives during the height of WWII.
You’ll have a great time during your visit to this museum in Oak Ridge as you browse through the visual and historical artifacts, including a vast collection of photographs of the Manhattan Project’s official photographer Ed Westcott.
Celebrate Arts at the Oak Ridge Art Center
Aside from Project Manhattan and stuff about atomic energy, Oak Ridge has a thriving arts community that you’ll find at the Oak Ridge Art Center. It is a must-visit attraction in the city if you want to get up close with world-class visual arts from local and renowned artists.
You will be overwhelmed by the beautiful creations of local artists and come across a huge array of crafts and artworks from international artists at its travel exhibit. In addition, you can hone your artistic skills and creativity by joining the art center’s educational workshops and programs.
The museum has been managed by the Oak Ridge Community Art Center, which was established in 1952. They play a key role in establishing Oak Ridge’s arts community, which helps develop the city’s own creative identity apart from the U.S. government’s atomic energy development.
The group also organizes various art events throughout the year in Oak Ridge, so you should proactively check their scheduled events because you might join one of them during your visit there.
Ring the International Friendship Bell
The International Friendship Bell, 8,000 pounds of bronze cast with images that symbolize the peace and friendship shared by Japan and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The International Friendship Bell and Peace Pavilion is among the significant sites for tours by visitors coming to Oak Ridge to learn more about the city’s history and to experience the sights within the Manhattan Project Historical National Park.
Sotetsu Iwazawa, a well-known Japanese bell maker, created the iconic bell and turned it over to the city of Oak Ridge in 1996. It’s another must-visit historical site in Oak Ridge that you shouldn’t miss. Visitors are welcome to ring the bell anytime as a reminder of peace and unity.
Follow the Locals to the Oak Ridge Farmers’ Market
Formerly known as the Blossom Hill Farmers’ Market, Farmers’ Market at Westfield Oakridge has served the Blossom Hill neighborhood for 17 years, from 9 am –1 pm, Year-round.
With over 40 growers and food producers at peak season, this community market hosts many local Santa Clara growers’ bountiful harvests. This year several local organic growers joined the farmers’ market. The market has public transportation access.
Often fruits and vegetables were picked just hours before the farmers’ market opens, and have traveled less than fruits and vegetables traveling through the conventional wholesale channel to the grocery stores. The fruit offered at farmers’ markets is sweeter because it has higher sugar content because it has ripened on a tree instead of a truck/train or shelf.
Talk to your favorite farmers about their harvest techniques, their favorite family recipes, and their special heirloom seeds handed down through generations.
Watch Live Performances at the Grove Theater
The Grove Theater in Oak Ridge is known for its rich history and memorable past. It was one of the first entertainment establishments during the height of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.
Grove Theater is home to various science and arts organizations in Oak Ridge, and it’s currently operated by the High Places Community Church. It hosts various stage plays, concerts, civic-related affairs, and religious events. Visiting this old theater also gives you more information about the rich and colorful history of Oak Ridge.
Set Out on an Outdoor Adventure at the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement
Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement (BORCE) is located behind K-25, on the far west side of Oak Ridge. The BORCE is a bear witness to the city’s great history. It saw how the Manhattan Project started paved the way to the dawn of the atomic age and has seen the city progress from an underground city to a vibrant community.
Many locals and visitors head to this area to hike or bike along its scenic trails, teeming with woodland birds chirping overhead. The entire trail of this area spans 11 miles with a combination of paved, dirt, and gravel roads, perfect for hiking and biking activities.
For a place to enjoy nature at the same time as stretching your muscles, you should head to this natural attraction in Oak Ridge.
Hike through the Beautiful University of Tennessee Arboretum
The UT Arboretum is a project of the University of Tennessee Forest Resources Ag Research and Education Center. It generally hosts more than 30,000 visitors annually. This 250-acre research and education facility has over 2,500 native and exotic woody plant specimens that represent 800 species, varieties, and cultivars.
From an outdoor enthusiast’s perspective, the vast forested area means it’s a perfect venue to do outdoor activities. True to it, there are dozens of outdoor activities to enjoy in the arboretum like hiking, nature photography, wildlife photography, and biking.
Walk through the Secret City Commemorative Walk
Located in Bissell Park, this memorial honors the thousands of men and women who moved to a city that was not found on maps to help end World War II. The memorial’s oval walkway features 10 bronze plaques that tell the story of Oak Ridge and its role in the war. The Secret City Commemorative Walk also displays a series of eight bronze markers that chronicle what life was like for people who lived in Oak Ridge while it was closed to the public.
This activity in Oak Ridge highlights a stroll around a narrow and circular pathway, where you’ll come across ten bronze tablets, each telling the backstory of the city and the Manhattan Project. These tablets are great sources of information for those who want quick learning about Oak Ridge’s rich history.
Browse through Shops and Restaurants at the Jackson Square
Jackson Square lies at the center of the historic district, which once served as the city’s original town site. During World War II, this area was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Today Jackson Square features a variety of eclectic shops, delicious restaurants, lush gardens, and historic displays. For about 60 years, the Oak Ridge Playhouse, one of the South’s premier theatres, has also called Jackson Square home.
Thousands of people visit the Lavender festival in Historic Jackson Square each year to see a variety of regional vendors whose goal is to celebrate health, herbs, and the environment. The Lavender Festival is scheduled for the third weekend in June, at the peak season for the herb it celebrates.
Aside from being the commercial district of the city of Oak Ridge, Jackson Square has also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are various restaurants to dine at, such as the New China Palace, Dean’s Restaurant & Bakery, Gallo Loco Mexican, Crafter’s Brew Market & Social, and fast-food chains.
Get Entertained at the Oak Ridge Playhouse
The Oak Ridge Playhouse and Junior Playhouse is one of the oldest continually-operating community theaters in the country. The Playhouse is a professionally-managed volunteer organization, which produces a diverse annual season of musicals, plays, and children’s theatre for audiences and participants of all ages. Located in Historic Jackson Square, the Playhouse offers quality entertainment at an affordable price.
Historically, Oak Ridge Playhouse has been in operation since 1943, providing employees and military personnel in the Manhattan Project entertainment after a tiring day at work. The theater hasn’t changed until today and provides great entertainment to locals and visitors in its 315-seater auditorium.
Oak Ridge is a hidden gem full of surprises and fascinating history. It is a highly recommended destination for history buffs, nature lovers, and art enthusiasts. Don’t forget to try out these activities the next time you visit this amazing city in Tennessee.