Secret City Scenic Route and Facility History

"In early 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers identified a fifty-nine-thousand-acre swatch of land between Black Oak Ridge to the north and the Clinch River to the south as a federal reserve to serve as one of three sites nationwide for the development of the atomic bomb. Residents received court orders to vacate their ancestral homes within two weeks. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and workers soon swarmed into Oak Ridge to build and operate three huge facilities that would change the history of the region and the world forever."

"On the reservation's western edge rose K-25, or the gaseous diffusion plant, a warehouse-like structure covering more area than any building ever built. Completed at a cost of $500 million and operated by twelve thousand workers, the K-25 plant separated uranium-235, an isotope suited for acheiving nuclear fission, from uranium-238. On its northern edge, near the workers' city named Oak Ridge, rose the Y-12 plant where an electromagnetic method was used to separate uranium-235. Built for $427 million, the Y- 12 plant employed twenty-two thousand workers. Near the reservation's southwest corner, about ten miles from Y-12, was the third plant, X-10."

"Built between February and November 1943 for $12 million and employing only 1,513 people during the war, X-10 was much smaller than K-25 and Y-23. As a pilot plant for the larger plutonium plant built at Hanford, Washington, X-10 used neutrons emitted in the fission of uranium-235 to convert uranium-238 into a new element, plutonium-239. During the war, X-10 was called Clinton Laboratories, named after the nearby county seat of rural Anderson County; in 1948, Clinton Laboratories became Oak Ridge National Laboratory." [Oak Ridge National Laboratory - The First Fifty Years by Leland Johnson and Daniel Schaffer.]

The building of these plants forced the removal of about 1000 families and the destruction of four small communities: Elza, Robertsville, Wheat, and Scarborough. The land had first been made available for homesteading in 1798 by treaty with several tribes of the Cherokees. Elza was named after a railroad bridge engineer who helped to build a bridge near there. Elza was located where Tennessee highway 95 passes under the CSX railroad east of Oak Ridge.

Robertsville was founded in 1804 and named after Collins Roberts, who had received a 4000-acre land grant in what is now Oak Ridge. Scarborough was founded in the 1790s by three brothers from Virginia - Jonathan, David, and James Scarborough. The Cherokees had originally called the location Pellissippi. Today, ORNL covers the community's location, although New Bethel Church still stands across the road from the complex. Wheat, named after the first postmaster, Frank Wheat, was founded sometime in the mid-1800s. It was the site of Roane College from 1886 to 1908. K-25 sits where Wheat used to be.

The Secret City Scenic runs on a rail line built during the construction of K-25 to support the movement of materials in and out of the site. For much of the line's history, Southern Railway provided service to the K-25 gate, where a plant rail operation took over and actually delivered the cars. The locomotive power used at the plant included a mix of military switchers and export locomotives from many builders such as General Electric and American Locomotive Company (ALCO). The ALCO locomotives used from about 1946 to the mid-1960s were almost identical to those used today. They were military versions of the RS-1, generally called the RSD-1. Numbers known to have been assigned to K-25 include 8655 (also numbered 39-4404RA and lettered for L&N, then Southern Railway; sold to US Federal Prisons and scrapped in 1972), 8657 (once lettered L&N, later Southern; sold to TVA and scrapped in 1974), 8659 (also lettered Southern; scrapped in Knoxville in 1966), and 8664 (later Alaskan Railroad 1017, scrapped in mid- 60s). 8655, 8657, and 8659 were especially unique as they were actually painted up as Southern locomotives with just a small Atomic Energy Commission logo on their cabs.

In the early 1990s, Southern turned the railroad's operation back over to the US Department of Energy, which has contracted with Southern Freight Railroad to operate it. The locomotives used today were originally built for the USAEC Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. Both are ALCO model RS-1 and have recently been rebuilt with some improvements. 39-5308 was built in June, 1951, as ALCO 79050, Savannah River 105. 39-5310, formerly Savannah River 108, was built in July, 1951, as ALCO 79053.


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This page last revised: March 26, 2001

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