John Hendrix and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, TN
Y-12 is more than just a place and more than mere historical fact. Y-12, in the truest sense, is a vision brought to reality. Over 40 years before it was conceived in the minds of our government officials, it was seen in a true-to-life vision by John Hendrix, who is now called “The Prophet of Oak Ridge.”
In the 1940’s, Y-12 was a monumental national triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it succeeded in producing a new material so powerful that it changed the world forever and it represented the epitome of an idea transformed into spectacular and tremendous action. Yet to grasp the essence of “Y-12” requires more than just the knowledge of these facts, an understanding of the deeper truths and symbols of Y-12 must first be gained. The story of John Hendrix must first be appreciated for the wonder it brings regarding time and place and the power of the human mind.
John Hendrix, a mystic who roamed the East Tennessee woods around the turn of the 20th century, more than 40 years before Y-12 or Oak Ridge existed, told the future regarding Bear Creek valley that lay between two East Tennessee ridges and Black Oak Ridge just north of that valley.
He first predicted that soon a railroad would be built running from Knoxville through the central part of Anderson County. This prediction proved accurate and caused Hendrix to consider himself capable of even more amazing prophecies. He was told by a voice, he said, to sleep on the ground for 40 nights and he would learn about the future. He did as he was told and on the 41st day he emerged from the woods and beginning at the local crossroads general store he told everyone who would listen about the amazing things he had seen in his visions while sleeping on the ground.
“Bear Creek Valley some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that will ever be.”
“There will be a city on Black Oak Ridge and the center of authority will be on a spot middle-way between Sevier Tadlock’s farm and Joe Pyatt’s Place.”
“A railroad spur will branch off the main L&N line, run down toward Robertsville and then branch off and turn toward Scarbrough.”
“Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake.”
“I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”
John Hendrix died in 1915 at age 49 and is buried on a hilltop in a subdivision of Oak Ridge named “Hendrix Creek.”
His predictions were uncannily accurate. Twenty-eight years after his death, Y-12 was built in Bear Creek Valley. It was constructed in 18 months with nine huge buildings and all the necessary support facilities. The uranium U-235 needed for the first atomic bomb was produced there that led to the end of World War II. The city of Oak Ridge was built on Black Oak Ridge.
So, Y-12 is more than just a place and more than mere historical fact. John Hendrix knew it long before anyone else.
Of the four communities that predated Oak Ridge, only Scarboro (the new spelling) retains much of its old character (although the houses and country stores along Bethel Valley Road are gone). Scarborough Elementary School burned in the late 1920’s but it was rebuilt as a brick structure, part of which is still standing and used by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.
Also standing is the New Bethel Church across from ORNL. Church leaders were convinced that the government would tear down the church in 1942, so they voted to erect a monument to the church as their last official action. The memorial behind the church reads “Erected in Memory of New Bethel Baptist Church, Open 1851 Closed 1942…Church Building Stood 47 Feet in Front of this Stone.”
However, the U.S. government let the building remain and used it for storage, meetings, and experiments. It serves today as a museum about the residents who had to move and leave their beloved land. The New Bethel Church, one of four pre-Oak Ridge churches, can be viewed on the Department of Energy Public Bus Tour that takes place each year from June through September.
Residents of Scarborough were as unhappy as the settlers in Wheat, Robertsville, and Elza about leaving their farms and land. But, as one of them said: “What do you do? The government needed your land to win the war. Who would refuse such a request as that?”
The Scarboro cemetery is still located near the ORNL complex.
Other communities included Edgemoor, Bethel and East Fork, but not as much information is available about those communities.
Before 1942 when the U.S. government began buying up the farm land that now comprises the city of Oak Ridge, the area was populated by 3,000 people residing in approximately 1,000 homes scattered throughout these seven communities.
The Elza community was named after a construction engineer in charge of building a railroad bridge in that area. This was also once the home of John Hendrix, the “prophet” who around 1900 predicted that Oak Ridge would be created in Bear Creek Valley.
Robertsville was settled in 1804 by Collins Roberts, who had received a 4,000-acre land grant in what is now Oak Ridge. Robertsville High School was built there around 1915; its auditorium is now the gymnasium of Robertsville Junior High School.
Wheat, settled in the middle of the 19th century, was named after the first postmaster, Frank Wheat. It was the home of Roane College, a liberal arts college that was open from 1886 through 1908. The community was dispersed by acquisition of the land for the K-25 Site.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its surrounding land displaced Scarborough, which was founded in the 1790’s and named after three early settlers, Jonathan, David, and James Scarborough, brothers from Virginia. The area along the Clinch River had been called the Pellissippi by the Cherokees.
Information obtained from “An Historic View of Oak Ridge,” D. Ray Smith, and ornl.gov
The city of Oak Ridge was not officially on any map until 1949 when the gates were opened and citizens were allowed to come and go as they pleased. It was only then that Oak Ridge received its name. During the war years, it was referred to as Clinton Engineering Works (C.E.W.) because of its location near the town of Clinton.
In 1942, the 59,000-acre region was actually very rural and consisted of several smaller towns and a population of about 3,000 ( For more information see “Before the War: The Elza, Robertsville, Scarboro, and Wheat Communities”).
The relatively low population of the area made acquisition of the land affordable for the federal government. The area was also accessibly by highway and rail. Electricity and water were readily available thanks to the Clinch River and TVA’s Norris Dam . ( For more information see “The Role of TVA”)
The topography of the area was also of major importance in the selection site. The valley Oak Ridge sits in is 17 miles long and is partitioned by several ridges which would have provided natural protection from any unforeseen disasters that might have occurred at the four major industrial plants.
The topography of the area was also of major importance in the selection site. The valley Oak Ridge sits in is 17 miles long and is partitioned by several ridges which would have provided natural protection from any unforeseen disasters that might have occurred at the four major industrial plants. In addition, the distance from seacoasts and the proximity to Knoxville’s labor source also contributed to the selection of 59,000 acres in East Tennessee.
However, there is a possibility that politics may have entered into the decision. Senator McKellar from Tennessee just may have influenced the choice. The story goes like this:
In August 1943, President Roosevelt decided to create the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. He needed a way to set aside a large sum of money without it becoming obvious what was being done. Roosevelt asked Senate Budget Committee Chairman McKellar if this could be done. McKellar is said to have replied, “Yes, Mr. President, I can do that for you … now just where in Tennessee are you going to put that thang?”
A second McKellar story is related by Lester Fox, local automobile dealer. In 1942, Lester was attending the Oliver Springs High School. Lester and a friend were skipping school one day when as they walked by the telephone office, the operator leaned out the door and said, “Lester, go get the principal, he has an important phone call!” Now, Lester is skipping school, but he and his friend go tell the principal what they were instructed to tell him. The principal went to the telephone office and took the call. When he returned to the school, he called all the students into an assembly and told them, “I just got a phone call from Senator McKellar who said for me to tell you to go home and tell your parents that the government is going to need to take your land for the war effort so you need to find other places to live.” Lester swears this is the way many folks in the area that was to become the Manhattan Project first learned they were going to have to move off their land. In a matter of days, letters started showing up on the front doors of homes giving people only a few weeks to move and find another place to live.
Special thanks to D. Ray Smith for his contributions to this story.
During the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal was cause for great celebration and much needed jobs in rural East Tennessee. During this time period, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was called upon to erect the first dam in the TVA system.
The site for this dam was Norris, TN. One of two cities in Anderson County built by the federal government, Norris began as a planned community developed by TVA in 1933 to house the workers building Norris Dam. Approximately 2,900 families were displaced from reservoir lands during construction. Later, the homes were purchased by the town’s residents, and the town was incorporated in 1949.
Norris Dam is a hydroelectric and flood-control structure located on the Clinch River. Designed by architect Roland Wank, construction on the dam began in October 1933 and was completed in March 1936. The project cost $36 million.
The enormous amount of power needed to fuel the production of nuclear materials was one of the reasons the Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge was built where it was. Nuclear-materials production was both delicate and potentially dangerous. It required plenty of fresh water for cooling and a place that was not in danger of flooding.
For three years, the Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge used millions of kilowatts of TVA energy. Not even the TVA chairman knew this until August 1945, when the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
The electricity provided by Norris Dam, sixteen miles upstream from Oak Ridge, helped to run the facilities in Oak Ridge for the Manhattan Project. But that wasn’t the only role TVA played during WWII.
In 1935, TVA’s chairman, Arthur Morgan, testified before Congress that “an adequate supply of electric energy comes pretty close to being a matter of national defense.” Over the next six years, TVA geared up its energy capacity to be ready in the event of war.
During the war, TVA’s contributions began with its mapping department, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This department used aerial reconnaissance and techniques perfected in the course of mapping the Tennessee Valley to make crucial maps of Europe for Allied aviators. In addition, the TVA nitrate plants in Alabama supplied the raw material needed for thousands of tons of munitions.
The main contribution of TVA, however, was the huge amount of electric power it provided to customers during the war, including an A-31 bomber factory located in Nashville, Tennessee. Another TVA customer located in Alcoa, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, was the Aluminum Company of America, the largest aluminum plant in the world which was used to provide aluminum for the 50,000 planes that President Roosevelt demanded in May 1940 for the air force. In 1941, Alcoa gave its Fontana property to the federal government and ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a bill was signed authorizing the construction of Fontana Dam. Soon after that, TVA launched the construction of two more dams, Cherokee and Douglas. Their roles were also to support the wartime production of aluminum.
Clinton Engineering Works (C.E.W.) was separated into several different communities. It wasn’t until after the war when the buses started going through the gates that people realized C.E.W. was more than just their particular housing area, shopping center, and war-time facility.
The division and segregation of each community was vital to the secrecy the military was enforcing in the city. The less the residents knew, the better. They had no way of knowing that there were four facilities being built. They had no way of knowing there was more than one town site, more than one movie theater, more than one school.
Happy Valley was the town located next to the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant. This was more of a camp site than an actual town. The campsite was made up hutments, trailers, dormitories, and barracks. A few farm houses remained on the land and were used by higher level officials. (Download Lost City Story)
While Happy Valley was situated near the K-25 site, Town Site was filled with workers who were busy building the Y-12 and X-10 plants. They had no way of knowing there was another Manhattan Project facility being built in the next valley.
Each plant had a secret code name, designed specifically to mean absolutely nothing. This was intentionally done so outsiders who might get inside the gates wouldn’t know what was going on at each plant. The only plant name that had a tell-tell sign was the K-25 plant. The 25 was taken from the Uranium 235 that was being produced in the plant, and the K stood for Kellex, the subsidiary of M.W. Kellogg Corporation that was engineering and constructing the building. By the time General Groves arrived in Oak Ridge and found out about this, he thought that changing the name would attract too much attention, so he left it as it was.
General Leslie Groves had requested compartmentalization in all matters related to the Manhattan Project because he wanted to limit any knowledge of the project held by any individual so that person would not betray it to an enemy.
By limiting discussion to a few top officials, this was possible. However, Groves’ wishes were not completely followed. According to his biography, Racing for the Bomb by Robert S. Norris, Groves listed eight major objectives for secrecy:
- To keep knowledge from the Germans and the Japanese
- To keep knowledge from the Russians
- To keep as much knowledge as possible from all other nations, so that the US position after the war would be as strong as possible
- To keep knowledge from those who would interfere directly or indirectly with the progress of the work, such as Congress and various executive branch offices
- To limit discussion of the use of the bomb to a small group of officials
- To achieve military surprise when the bomb was used and thus gain the psychological effect
- To operate the program on a need-to-know basis by the use of compartmentalization.
Richard Feynman was one of the great young scientists working on the bomb at Los Alamos. Feynman took it upon himself to demonstrate the inadequacy of the security systems at Los Alamos. Because there was not much to do in the way of entertainment during down time, Feynman spent much of his free time playing practical jokes on his colleagues – breaking into offices and file cabinets and leaving notes for his friends to read. In addition, when he found holes in the fence, he made it a practice to sneak out, then walk back in through the gate until the guards realized he was only going one direction. Feynman often borrowed the car of his friend, Klaus Fuchs, so he could visit his ailing wife. Feynman would later learn that Fuchs was actually one of the employees who had been selling the secrets of Los Alamos. Fuchs, who was a German communist turned British citizen, would rendezvous with Russian spies at a meeting place in Santa Fe regularly from 1942 to 1945.
The full scope of infiltration by the Soviet Union is still not fully known, but we do know that after the war, several men and women were revealed as spies including Alan Nunn May, David Greenglass, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Klaus Fuchs.
According to Groves, a spy like Greenglass would never have learned so many of the secrets of Los Alamos with his low-level clearance if he was not told those secrets by the security violators themselves.