It's official: the Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Posted: December 17, 2015 - 5:05pm

Y‑12 Historian Ray Smith was a part of history when he attended the signing of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. He shares his memories here.

As Y‑12's historian, it was an honor for me to be present when America's 409th and newest national park was established Nov. 10. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz officially signed a memorandum of agreement. The following days held celebrations in Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington — the three sites of this unique park.

There is history involved in this achievement. It took some time. The quest for a Manhattan Project National Historical Park started with a series of meetings with the National Park Service in 2003 at each of the three sites to help determine what would be needed to form a Manhattan Project-related national park. In 2004, legislation was passed requiring NPS to complete a "special resource study," which is a formal agency assessment that is often the first step for creating a national park site.

This two year study actually took seven and a half years. In January 2010, NPS recommended a park be placed only in Los Alamos because of the concern that the facilities involved would be too expensive to maintain. This recommendation was not popular with the Oak Ridge and Hanford communities, so a political battle began. The U.S. Department of Energy ultimately refused to accept that position and eventually gained agreement by accepting perpetual responsibility for all DOE facilities that would become a part of the park.

In 2011, NPS transmitted a special resource study to Congress, recommending the establishment of a three-site park that included Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Hanford. In 2012, bills were submitted to Congress but did not reach the floor. In 2013, a bill to establish the park passed the House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate. In 2014, a bill passed the House in May and the Senate on Dec. 15, 2014. It was signed into law on Dec. 19, 2014, by President Obama.

A joint team met in Washington, D.C., and came to Oak Ridge March 25, 2015. Imagine my excitement as I joined the team on a tour of Oak Ridge to see Building 9204-3 (Beta 3), where two racetracks of calutrons remain today; Building 9731 where the world's only Alpha Calutron magnets stand; the Graphite Reactor, which proved that plutonium could be produced on an industrial scale and the K‑25 site. The team also toured Hanford and Los Alamos.

During the Oak Ridge tour, NPS personnel decided to locate the to be park's visitor center in the American Museum of Science and Energy temporarily.

I was selected to be one of 20 people on the Scholars' Forum. We met for two days in Washington, D.C., to brainstorm the major themes for the new park. I also attended the signing ceremony. After having been involved all these years in the effort to establish the park, I was proud to be there and even prouder to be included in the Scholars' Forum.

After my whirlwind trip in Washington, D.C., I came back to Oak Ridge for the signing celebration. At the Park Service's request, we provided special tours to the public that included Building 9731, Building 9204-3 (Beta 3) and the Graphite Reactor. These tours immediately filled to overflowing, and we added five additional tours to accommodate the number! About 1,000 people met at the Oak Ridge High School Auditorium and helped recreate the famous Ed Westcott "War Ends" image with a "Park Opens" image.

The celebrations included two original Calutron Girls, Ruth Huddleston and Peggy Stuart, along with Martin Skinner, who worked in 9731, and, of course, famous photographer Ed Westcott.
It is with great pride I got to experience this exciting time documenting Oak Ridge's history. Much work remains to be able to tell the story of the Manhattan Project and the resulting technological advances in a way that the public can understand and appreciate the heritage.

The public will begin to better appreciate and understand the powerful legacy and heritage of the Manhattan Project when our nation's storytellers, NPS, take the lead in interpreting the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. All Y‑12ers should be proud to be a part of this effort to interpret our history for future generations.