For seven years, the town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., didn't exist. It did not have a population of around 75,000 people. It was not surrounded by fences and armed guards. And it did not play a vital role in the Manhattan Project, helping create the atom bomb.
The U.S. government began acquiring the 60,000 acres that would make up Oak Ridge—or, as it was originally called, the Clinton Engineer Works—in 1942, knowing that it would need a vast-but-remote location to separate the uranium that would, eventually, go into the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was completely fabricated, from the bottom up, and would eventually hold, according to Life Magazine, 10 schools, a hospital, 17 restaurants, 13 supermarkets and seven theaters, all connected by 300 miles of road and 53 miles of railroad track. (It was also designed to be a segregated town, so it had separate facilities for its African-American residents.)
Oak Ridge also held the single largest building in the world at the time, the uranium separating facility. But, despite the secrecy and the separation from the world at large, the overwhelming majority of Oak Ridge's residents didn't know exactly what it was they were working on—until they saw the news of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.
In 1947, Oak Ridge fell under civilian control (overseen by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission), but by 1959, the government left it alone completely. But these newly released pictures—all of which feature people who posed for the camera—show the brief time in history when a town of unwitting people would help build the most devastating weapon ever to be deployed.