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Chapter 1: Wartime Laboratory

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In September 1942, Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves took charge of the Manhattan Project. His influence was to be felt far and wide by people swept into service for this top secret project. In Oak Ridge, in the red mud and yellow dust, he was the driving force behind the construction and operation of the large wartime plants that would come to define the "Atomic City."

Groves is remembered for his management style and personality traits. Those who liked him recall that he was hard-driving, courageous, tough, responsible, and efficient. They say he demanded respect and got the job done. Those less fond of his style remember him as blunt, impatient, ruthless, tyrannical, severe, and inconsiderate. For them, he was a strict taskmaster.

Leslie R. Groves

The day before he came to Oak Ridge, Groves was in a meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson. By age and rank, Groves was the junior person. Stimson proposed a committee of seven to nine persons to run the Manhattan Project; Groves countered that such a committee would be inefficient and proposed a committee of three. After some discussion, the group accepted Groves' suggestion. Then, in the presence of his superiors, Groves abruptly excused himself from the meeting, saying he had to take the train to Oak Ridge to select a site for the first atomic plant.

On September 19, 1942, Groves met with Colonel James Marshall and inspected the site in Oak Ridge. Groves was pleased with the site because it offered abundant electrical power and water, good access by road and train, a sparse population, a nearby source of labor, and a mild climate that made outdoor work possible year round.

Although scientific research leading to industrial production of fissionable material was not yet complete, Groves decided to take a chance on constructing uranium-235 production plants in Oak Ridge. To accomplish this task, some 59,000 acres were purchased at a cost of $60 to $70 per acre.

During the war, Groves frequently visited Oak Ridge, staying at a special suite permanently reserved for him in the Guest House, now the Alexander Motor Inn. When the hotel was booked up, guests were allowed to stay in the general's suite provided that they agreed to leave if he should show up (he sometimes arrived in the middle of the night). 

Besides production of enriched uranium through electromagnetic separation and gaseous diffusion, which was done at Oak Ridge, another goal of the Manhattan Project was to produce plutonium through transmutation of uranium. Although the Graphite Reactor was a pilot plant for creating plutonium, Groves ruled out Oak Ridge as a major site for large-scale plutonium production. He was concerned about the proximity of the site to Knoxville and the possibility, however remote, of a reactor explosion that might endanger Knoxville.

Groves, a native of Albany, New York, who graduated fourth in his class from the U.S. Military Academy, headed the Manhattan Engineer District for three years. He retired from the Army in 1948 with the rank of lieutenant general and wrote several books, including Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. He served as a vice president of the Sperry Rand Corporation until 1961 and died in 1970 in Washington, D.C. 

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