Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.
With music still ringing in our ears, we pointed the truck toward the eastern end of Tennessee. We’re on the western side of the Smokies, with Pigeon Forge and Dollywood beckoning. But that wasn’t what we came for. We settled at an isolated but friendly campground in Lenoir City and had two important destinations . . . and a third loomed large.
Nearby Kingston is the home of two very special people, Mike and Tina Williford. and their four Schips, Abie, Walker, Razzy and Zeva. We have known Tina through national Schipperke shows since 2005, and we paid our first visit to their spread and met Mike in the fall of 2007. Both of them are local Roane County folk. Mike’s been a part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for decades, and Tina retired a couple of years ago. On our last visit, when we were towing a much smaller trailer, we parked it next to their barn. But we decided to park the current monster in a campground.
Besides the Willifords, our other critical focus was Oak Ridge itself. In 2010, as part of our Lewis & Clark adventure, we went to the Tri-Cities of southeastern Washington state to visit the Sacagawea Museum in Pasco. We didn’t realize until we got there that all three cities held treasures of their own. Kennewick offered up Kennewick Man, a complete skeleton of one of our ancestors from 5,000 to 9,000 years ago and now the victim of endless ancestral battles between Native and Later Americans. Richland (Hanford), in turn, exposed us to one of the tentacles of The Manhattan Project. Taken over by the government in 1943, it produced the plutonium that was used both in the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki bomb. The Manhattan Project became a new trail for us, which led us to White Sands and Los Alamos this past spring, where the devices were built and tested. Now we were about to visit the nerve center of uranium production.
Like Hanford and Los Alamos, the government commandeered a remote piece of landscape in the early 1940s to create Oak Ridge. Enrico Fermi had produced the first nuclear chain reaction under the soccer field at the U. of Chicago, and the director of The Manhattan Project, Lt. Gen. Leslie (Dick) Groves, located and orchestrated the development of this facility, as he did the other two. It became a city of 75,000 at its height, requiring a full infrastructure of housing, schools, recreation as well as functioning factories. There were four operations. Three of them, Y-12, K-25 and S-50, were dedicated to the extraction of the Uranium 235 isotope (the rare but explosive variety) while the fourth, X-10, a prototype of the graphite reactors installed in Hanford, produced plutonium. Physicists take note: Y-12 used electromagnetic separation using Calutrons (cyclotrons invented at California University); K-25 used gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium; and S-50 used a less efficient process called liquid thermal diffusion that pre-processed the ores going in to Y-12 and K25. Gee, I actually understand a little of that, since our tour guide was a nuclear physicist. The bottom line is that Oak Ridge produced the material used in Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb.
We visited twice. On the first day, we explored the core site (pun intended), the American Museum of Science and Energy. The lower floor dealt with the Manhattan Project years; General Groves rates an exhibit of his own. We knew a lot about him already, but I was mesmerized by a memo he wrote to the Secretary of War after the Trinity Test. I implored the staff to help me take home a copy of it; that failed but Google didn’t let me down. I can now share this remarkable document with you.
The first row of pictures below shows shows life in the Secret City. First picture second row shows operators who precisely clicked a buton over and over again to control reactions. The final b&w shot pictures James Westcott, the photographer commissioned to officially document the period. And the last shot along the mezzanine is a panorama of the installation.
The upper floor displays subsequent realities, including ongoing scientific work at the site. The shot with the blue sofa is a view of a tpical U.S. home during the Cold War. Ongoing efforts have involved both military and peceful uses. One fascinating story upstairs focused on the development of deuterium (last picture); a form of hydrogen contained in water, if it could be extracted, a pint of water could replace 25 gallons of gasoline.
Behind the building was one of the hosing units built for the thousand of families. This layout was a B house; it was pre-fabbed in two 12×24 foot halves and brought to the site. It featured two bedrooms and built-in furniture. This particular house was bought at auction from the government and, with a pitched roof added, served as a vacation home for over 30 years. Brought back to the museum, it is being completely restored.
On the second day, we took a three hour bus tour of the entire complex. The length was primarily a function of driving distance; we only had three stops where we were allowed to get off. But we did get to each of the original centers, all nestled in their own separate valleys within the 37,000 acre compound. And, as mentioned above, we had a very knowledgeable guide doing tour duty in retirement after an extensive career there. There are two active components. One is the new Y-12, operated cooperatively by Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel to serve the National Nuclear Security Agency, a function of DOE. Its efforts are concerned with nuclear defense, non-proliferation, and safety. One interesting development on exhibit was boxes to hold and protect specimens brought back from the moon. The second is Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the management of UT-Battelle, a joint venture by the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest non-profit R&D organization.
One of ORNL’s dozens of research facilities is SNS, the Spallation Neutron Source. They deliver neutrons to multiple experiment stations using a quarter-mile long device that I couldn’t begin to describe, but I thought of it as a lateral Hadron Collider. The site has a large guest house to put up scientists from all over the world who brought their projects to the resource. I guess they can’t UPS or FedEx the neutrons elsewhere!
A poignant stop was a tiny Bethel Baptist Church and Graveyard, built in 1851 and abandoned in 1942 because of the government influx. We oversaw from afar the last stages of the demolition of K-25. And we got an inside look at the X-10 graphite reactor, a bit anticlimactic for us since we’d been to the Hanford B-Reactor, a much larger offspring. There was an exhibit in an adjoining room that portrayed the chronology of its history.
After Oak Ridge, we spent a day with the Willifords. Mike and I took off in the afternoon to explore Roane County; he’s lived in all three of its towns. Our primary destination was Fort Southwest Point, built in 1797 at the junction of the Tennessee and Clinch Rivers to provide escort service through Cherokee territory. Peter Avery had been dispatched from North Carolina, of which this area was once a part, to blaze the trail that runs from Knoxville to Nashville and today bears his name (The Avery Trace). The soldiers, who numbered as many as 625, served as peacemakers and were involved in the purchase of Cherokee land. Unfortunately, purchase later evolved to usurpation.
The city of Kingston, stewards of the project, has been able to construct buildings on two of the 13 foundations, and the archeological digs have unearthed a trove of artifacts, many of which are on display in the Visitor’s Center. But the docent on duty – another Don — was for me the biggest treasure. I mentioned our exploration of the L&C trail, and he told me (reminded me) that four of the men on the expedition came from Fort Southwest Point. In fact, the four were chosen from eight candidates recruited by George Drouillard and brought to Fort Massac in Illinois for consideration: Hugh Hall, Thomas P. Howard, John Potts, and Richard Warfington. Don and I engaged in half an hour of animated conversation at the end of which he gave me a copy of a prized document: the fate of every member of the expedition after it ended. He was delighted that we were also visiting Fort Loudoun.
Fort Loudoun was about twenty miles south of our campsite. The French & Indian War occurred just prior to the U.S. Revolution (1756-60). The British Colony of South Carolina feared that the Cherokee could turn against them, so they sent a force to create the Fort Loudoun garrison in their territory. For several years, it cemented the relationship. But the honeymoon soured, and in 1760, The Cherokee surrounded the fort and forced surrender. The Cherokee promised safe passage, but within a day, 24 Englishmen lay dead – the same number of Cherokee prisoners earlier hanged by the British.
The Tellico Blockhouse, built across the Little Tennessee River within sight of the fort, was more successful. Built in 1794 at the request of the Cherokee, it aimed to quell ongoing fights between Indians and settlers, and several treaties were negotiated there. The sight is mapped, but not yet reconstructed. But it is an omen of things to come; the next thirty years were the precursor of the atrocity known as the Trail of Tears. As harsh as the extermination of the bison to starve out the western Native Americans, I can’t look with pride at this phase of our nation building.
Less than half a mile down the road is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. He was born about 1776 of a liaison between the daughter of a Cherokee chief and a Virginia fur trader. He totally embraced his Cherokee heritage and never spoke English. He married several times (polygamy was legal) and sired seven children. He served in the U.S. forces during the War of 1812 against both British and Creek forces. He engaged in several occupations, including silversmithing and painting. Tiring of creating pictures, and aware that writing was a powerful tool of the Euro-Americans, he set upon the creation of a pictoric language for his own people. Working with extremes from full phrases to individual letters, he found a middle ground: a syllabary that converts the speech of his people to 85 representative characters. He thus became the only person ever to single-handedly create a written language. Introduced in 1821, it created almost instant literacy, and, with the establishment of a printed newspaper in New Echota, Georgia, as well as the printing of thousands of documents, including the Bible, in the new language, it spread like wildfire. Sequoyah went to Washington and was involved in the creation of additional treaties. To no avail; Manifest Destiny overran him. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, leading to confiscation of land and expulsion of its owners, was supplemented by destruction of the press and the actual type characters that portended liberation. Sequoyah headed west to Arkansas and beyond before the expulsion, carrying the written word. History speculated that he died somewhere around 1843-45 in Mexico while trying to repatriate members of the Cherokee family.
The “talking stick,” picture #2 below, is carved with all the characters of the Sequoyah Syllabary. You can view the entire set by clicking on picture #3.
Sad lessons. But it’s new insight into what made the Nation we were born into but never really understood from book-learning. It’s just another of the countless wow-factors we’ve experienced on this adventure. Stand by – we’re not finished!