The Manhattan Project: 20th Century History, 21st Century Significance

Posted on: July 19th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 7 Comments

Written by Amy Cole, Senior Field Officer and Attorney

The top-secret Manhattan Project has been called “the single-most significant event of the 20th century.” Begun as a small research project to develop an atomic weapon in advance of Germany, the Manhattan Project grew to include thousands of scientists working around the clock and in laboratories across the country.  The creation and use of the atomic bomb, developed by the Project’s scientists, brought an end to World War II, altering the position of the United States in the world community while setting the stage for the Cold War.

Specific laboratories central to achieving this mission were established at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Hanford Site in Washington.

Construction at Oak Ridge began in 1943, and included the Y-12 Plant with nine uranium enrichment buildings and the hundreds of warehouses, cooling towers, office buildings, and laboratories required to support the work. Y-12’s calutrons -- the machinery which processed the uranium necessary to produce an atomic weapon -- are the only surviving production-level electromagnetic isotope separation facilities in the United States.

Oak Ridge’s K-25 Site illustrates the enormous scale and ambition of the Manhattan Project. At the time of its construction, K-25 was the largest building in the world located beneath a single roof. The enrichment of Uranium 235 took place within its cavernous 43-acre footprint.

Oak Ridge’s Graphite Reactor produced the world’s first significant amounts of plutonium and was the model for Hanford's B Reactor that was subsequently completed in 1944. This was the world’s first reactor to produce plutonium on a large scale.

Los Alamos' V-Site is the location where the world’s first plutonium bombs were assembled. Constructed in January 1944 as a high explosives handling and assembly facility, the V-Site was one of the Manhattan Project’s most closely guarded secrets, for it was here that all elements of the project were integrated.

This vast network, comprised of hastily constructed wood-frame, masonry, and poured concrete structures, was designed only for temporary use.  But at the close of World War II, many facilities were assigned new, long-term missions.

In the years following the end of the war, the laboratories became the scene of cutting-edge scientific research as additional applications for nuclear energy were developed, fostering advances in the then-emerging fields of chemotherapy, high-speed computer technology, genomics, and bioengineering.

The laboratories retain architectural integrity and are considered eligible for National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark designation. These sites, owned and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, were included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2009, with the Enola Gay Hangar at Utah’s Wendover Airfield representing threatened Manhattan-era properties.

In 2004, Congress authorized the National Park Service to study whether sites related to the Manhattan Project should become part of the National Park system.  It was determined that resources located in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford possessed the national significance required for park designation and were suitable for inclusion as a three-unit national historical park.

Based on this study, today Congress is considering legislation to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that would interpret the development of the technology that created the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, and the contribution of scientists whose efforts created breakthroughs in a wide-range of modern scientific achievements.

The Manhattan Project is part of the National Trust’s portfolio of National Treasures, and we are leading efforts to ensure this legislation is enacted.  But we need your help to make it happen! Please contact your elected officials and ask them to co-sponsor the bill that would designate these sites as Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

We'll keep you in the loop of what's happening on Capitol Hill with this project, and we'll let you know when more actions arise. Thanks for supporting this National Treasure!

Photos updated June 20, 2012.

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7 Responses

  1. Cindy Kelly

    July 19, 2012

    Great article, Amy! Thanks for your making the Manhattan Project part of NTHP’s portfolio of National Treasures and for prompting members to contact their congressional delegation.

    We need to push the legislation through this year or it could be a long time coming.



  2. Kathleen Flenniken

    July 20, 2012

    Thank you for the article. It isn’t quite correct to call the Hanford Site a “laboratory.” It was in fact a huge industrial plant which originally included three reactors (eventually nine) and other enormous facilities for refining and fabricating the plutonium. It was an amazing engineering achievement, even more so to keep these temporary structures running for decades.

    The B Reactor (and its attendant facilities) was built in 13 months in complete secrecy. Over 50,000 workers toiled to create the Hanford complex and almost none of them had any idea what they were building. Hanford was chosen for its remoteness because there was real fear that something could go wrong. We forget the price that our government was willing to pay in order to attain the bomb first.

    Our country has tried to forget this history because it’s no longer a simple story of victory. It’s complicated and guilt-ridden. The Manhattan Project is rarely even taught in Washington State History. I regularly encounter college students, In Washington State, who have never heard of Hanford or know there is a multi-billon dollar nuclear cleanup in progress.

    Naming the Manhattan Project Sites as historic landmarks is in no way a glorification of the bomb. It is an acknowledgement of a world-altering event. It would be an immense mistake to try to paper over this past or fail to preserve these fascinating and foreboding structures. Certainly the nuclear waste they created is not going anywhere. We need to remember this story. We need to teach it to our children. The Landmark status is essential.

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  4. Teresa

    July 20, 2012

    My uncle was an F-4, a devastating designation at the time. But he could work at Oak Ridge. He didn’t know what he was doing, only that he was contributing to the war effort. That was enough. Oddly, he lived most of his life near Piketon, Ohio, the sister site to Oak Ridge which eventually made fuel for nuclear-powered submarines. Everyone wanted to be part of the effort during World War II, even if it was just one of the vast numbers of workers at Oak Ridge, Hanford or Los Alamos. Remembering that time and that effort is important to our national psyche.

  5. Suzanne

    July 21, 2012

    It is important that we remember our history. It distresses me that many young people today condemn the atomic bombings that ended World War II. They do not understand the consequences or the choices that President Truman so galantly made. We need to set the record straight. And, perhaps, listing the Manhatten Project sites as National Parks will help in the education of that part of our history.

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  7. streis

    July 30, 2012

    This might interest some of you. There is a piece of graphite from the Chicago Pile-1 for sale on ebay. It is a very rare and collectible piece of history: