Review: The Country Girls of Atomic City

En route to winning the war, the Manhattan Project rebuilt the lives and communities of rural East Tennessee. Whitney Kimball Coe reviews Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City.


The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan gives us the experiences of the women who left their homes and daily lives to work on a secret project that they were assured would end the war.   They came from the displaced communities along the Black Oak Ridge and from as far away as Washington state to work as secretaries, chauffeurs, chemists, janitors, operators, inspectors and administrators.

Kiernan places sharp focus on the taking of the valley along Black Oak Ridge.  She points out that “surveyors had been East Tennessee’s harbingers of doom for more than the last two decades, longer than that if you were Cherokee.  At the first sighting of a tripod or transit, alarm bells should have sounded.” Indeed, East Tennessee had a very recent history with eminent domain laws. The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forced thousands off of their land in 1934, and then the construction of Norris Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1936 called for the relocation of nearly 3,000 families and 5,000 graves.  Many families living within the acreage purchased for the Atomic City were experiencing their third forced removal, some given as little as two weeks to leave their homes.  A typical eviction notice went something like this:

The War Department intends to take possession of your farm December 1, 1942.  It will be necessary for you to move, not later than that date.

In order to pay you quickly, the money for your property will be placed into the United States Court at Knoxville, Tennessee.

It is expected that your money will be put in court within ten days, and as soon as you are notified, it is suggested you get in touch with the United States Attorney to find out how much can be drawn. 

Your fullest co-operation will be a material aid to the War Effort.

Needless to say the compensation given these families was hardly adequate and in many cases didn’t come close to the actual value of the land. 

Still, history moves on, and so does Denise Kiernan.  Her narrative continues through the end of the war and the dropping of the bomb. 

The many years she spent conducting interviews with diverse sources pays off the rich detail: from the descriptions of the communities that characterized the valley before the development of the city, to the segregated infrastructure that rose so quickly out of the mud, to the post-war community of Oak Ridge.  It is a worthy addition to the many histories and biographies that give us a piece of the story of the Manhattan Project.