Governments have to keep a certain level of secrecy about their inner workings — and it makes sense. If the public was privy to every action that occurred behind closed doors, not only could it cause potential panic, but warring nations would suddenly have dangerous information at their disposal.
In 1942, residents of a small county in Tennessee were evicted from their homes without warning. Within just a few weeks, thousands of military personnel were suddenly occupying the area, and a mysterious town was erected for a secret government mission…
When the residents of Tennessee’s Andersen and Roane counties returned home from work one afternoon in 1942, every person was bewildered to find an eviction notice on their door from the United States government.
With no information as to why, roughly 3,000 residents were immediately displaced. The evacuated area was a 17-mile stretch of land tucked deep in the Appalachian valley, and there was a very specific reason the government was so focused on this secluded piece of land.
Within just a few weeks of the original residents leaving, swarms of military personnel began rolling into the area to start building. This caused extreme unease in the surrounding towns. What was happening?
Soon enough, an entire mysterious city was built, and the people in charge of the project named it Oak Ridge. No one was sure why, and to make matters even weirder, the town didn’t appear on any map…
Although Oak Ridge appeared to be a basic middle-class community full of supermarkets, movie theaters, and churches, at a closer glance, it was far from ordinary. The entire vicinity was enclosed by a barbed-wire fence with guard towers to keep unwanted visitors out.
Every day, Oak Ridge was receiving a number of strange shipments brought in on large cargo trucks. Workers scrambled to set up a massive infrastructure, including this mile-long U-shaped building where thousands were said to be employed.
There were thousands of temporary housing units built for the families who were moved into the weird new place. Hundreds of miles of roads and railways connected every part of the land, making transportation throughout all of Oak Ridge easy. But not everything was as it seemed.
All of this flurry of mysterious activity was happening during World War II. During this time, most of the country was rationing supplies, but in Oak Ridge, people constantly had fresh produce, unlimited food stamps, and a ton of cash flow.
Not only were the material goods in Oak Ridge plentiful, but it was the only city without unemployment, and every member of the city was able to afford solid health care. It seemed too good to be true…
Because it was. The people of Oak Ridge were living in a tightly sealed military compound that was putting forth a lot of effort into something none of the residents really understood. However, the secret couldn’t stay hidden for long…
Oak Ridge became the fifth largest city in the United States not long after it was built! It was also using one-seventh of the electrical power consumed by the entirety of the country! Something big was clearly happening, but very few people had any idea what it was.
Although you might find it hard to believe, the actual workers in the massive factories didn’t really know the purpose of their jobs either. Every aspect of their day-to-day routines was kept under tight wraps.
The government told the residents of Oak Ridge a very vague reason for their work: it would help bring an end to World War II. But, no one had any idea how; they just showed up to work, flipped dials, turned knobs, and did whatever else they were instructed to do.
There were carefully placed signs all over Oak Ridge urging people to keep their mouths closed about what they saw and heard while on the job. Oak Ridge was shrouded in mystery for three whole years, but on the morning of August 6, 1945, everyone finally knew what they all had been working towards…
The residents of Oak Ridge had, in fact, been helping to secretly build the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Some people were ecstatic the war was over, but others were horrified that their time at Oak Ridge was spent helping to kill hundreds of thousands of people.
The entire undercover endeavor was known as the Manhattan Project. The buildings in Oak Ridge, along with three other smaller locations around the country, were used to enrich uranium and produce plutonium, two vital materials in atomic weaponry. But, now that the war was officially over, what was to become of Oak Ridge?
After the war, the military handed it over to civilian control. In 1959, the town was officially placed on maps, and visitors could take guided tours of the mysterious town that helped end the second world war.
Nowadays, Oak Ridge still has a government nuclear research program, but it’s nowhere near as secretive as the Manhattan Project. Two of the three massive power plants still stand, but now, 30,000 people call Oak Ridge home and the days where secrecy and mystery inundated the streets is no more.
Imagine working for years in an enclosed city around military personnel without ever really knowing what you were doing. If the government kept something as massive as Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project a secret from the world, what else could they be hiding?
Well, just ask political writer Garrett Graff. He’s covered many hot-button issues in his lifetime, from the War on Terror to the 2008 U.S. presidential election. But perhaps his most eye-opening research started when his friend handed him something peculiar.
“It was a government ID for someone from the intelligence community,” Graff said, “and he gave it to me since I write about that subject, and he’s like, ‘I figure you can get this back to this guy.'” The friend, he noted, had found the ID on a parking garage floor.
Right away, Graff noticed something peculiar about the ID: step-by-step driving instructions covered the back of it. So Graff, inquisitive journalist that he was, used Google Maps to locate the direction’s end destination—and the results surprised him.
The directions led him to a mountain peak just over 70 miles outside of Washington D.C. There, at a peak known as Raven Rock, the road just… ended. It led to the face of the mountain and then, nothing.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation
Graff recalled everything else he saw once he made the trip out there. “You can see very clearly these big concrete bunker doors,” he said. “This little guard shack, chain-link fence, and then this set of concrete bunker doors beyond.” What had he just found?
The Center for Land Use Interpretation
“It was a facility that I had never heard of that wasn’t on any map,” Graff elaborated. His inner historian and journalist totally freaking out, he started researching what he’d found as soon as he could.
About Camp David
He didn’t know it when he first stumbled upon the structure, but the directions had led him to Raven Rock Mountain Complex, also known as ‘Site R’. To put it more bluntly, he’d found a nuclear fallout shelter!
Graff’s research turned up plenty of information on the United States government’s nuclear war contingency plan—some of it comforting, some of it horrifying, and all of it fascinating. For example…
The Truman administration sanctioned construction on the bunker in 1951 once the Cold War with the Soviet Union started warming up. They used a construction team who’d carved out New York City subway tunnels to do the job. So how’d they keep it secret?
U.S. National Archives / Flickr
Laborer Gene Bowman—who was paid $1.35 per hour in 1951 to bore through the granite of Raven Rock—put it this way: “They just said they were building a tunnel. Wasn’t nobody interested in what they were doing.” Once dug, however, it didn’t look like a simple tunnel.
In his interview with NPR, Graff described the Raven Rock Complex as “a free-standing city… built inside of this mountain.” Intended to be a “backup Pentagon,” Site R boasted two 34-ton blast doors capable of thwarting nuclear bomb blasts.
Beyond the blast doors and inside the heart of the rock, 100,000 feet of office provided all the room military officials would need to operate. Infirmaries, cafeterias, and utility areas allowed for up to 1,400 of America’s V.I.P.s to live somewhat comfortably—with a catch.
With the president, his or her cabinet, officials, and military personnel inhabiting the bunker, there was no room for spouses. This led to a famous exchange between then-Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and another official…
Handed an ID badge for access to Raven Rock, Justice Warren realized there wasn’t one for his wife. When told she wouldn’t be allowed in, the justice handed back the ID and said, “you’ll have room for one more important official.”
But believe it or not, Raven Rock wasn’t just a place for the elite and powerful to hobnob as the world around them fell apart. As Graff discovered, officials set up very specific operation plans for every federal branch—even the IRS and post office.
West Virginia Gazette
Yep, even in the case of nuclear destruction, the government wasn’t going to let people off the tax hook so easily. The IRS had a post-bomb plan that covered how appropriately to tax damaged—rather, vaporized—property.
And where would people get money to pay taxes in an apocalyptic society? Uncle Sam had a plan for that, too: officials stashed away publicly scorned $2 bills in another bomb shelter to redistribute as currency.
Edward Betts / Wikimedia
Other federal departments had assigned duties as well: the Parks Department would set up refugee camps, the Department of Agriculture would divvy up rations, and the post office was charged with finding out who died in the blast.
At time during the Cold War, a nuclear attack felt so imminent that Raven Rock had been fully manned and operated 24 hours per day—up until 1992. Operations were picked up and modernized once more after the September 11 attacks in 2001. They again run 24/7.
Though the ID card Graff received listed directions to only one secret bunker, his research uncovered half a dozen or so other doomsday shelters (like one beneath the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia here), each more or less the same in function and design.
Greenbrier Hotel & Resort
In Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs lie another hidden doomsday bunker. Like Raven Rock, this complex was built in the 1950s and served as “the command post responsible for defending both Canada and the U.S. from air attacks,” Graff said.
North American Aerospace Defense Command
Cheyenne Mountain had reservoirs of water and fuel, doctor’s offices, gyms, and even a Subway sandwich joint. So in the event of a nuclear attack, whoever was working the cash register at the time earned a spot among the surviving elite.
Through all of his research, though, Graff learned something unsettling. “If you’re trying to preserve and restart the government after an attack,” he explained to NPR, it “becomes this very existential question about what is America?”
As far as Graff could tell, the bunkers provided a disturbing answer. “The civilian population will be left to itself for weeks or months at a time,” he said, “and a small number of senior government officials will be spirited out to these bunkers.”
In other words, the government’s plot to rebuild post-nuclear war America didn’t really include the people. Preserving artifacts and the system of government took precedent, but in a time of chaos, what else could be done?
Graff dove deeper into his findings in a book he titled Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die. To think, his journey into some of the country’s biggest secrets started with just a lost ID badge!