Last updated: February 1, 2023
On Saturday morning, March 19, 1949, a line of cars a half-mile long snaked its way to Oak Ridge’s Elza Gate. Inside, nearly 10,000 Oak Ridge residents mingled with Hollywood movie stars, including Donald O'Connor, Adolph Menjou, Patricia Neal, Virginia Mayo, and Jack Bailey. Following fifteen minutes of brief speeches, Dr. George T. Felbeck, the Union Carbide executive responsible for building and operating the K-25 plant, used atomic energy from the X-10 Graphite Reactor to ‘cut’ a symbolic ribbon, which then disappeared in a puff of smoke. Elza Gate no longer guarded the perimeter of the city. The secret city of Oak Ridge was open to the public.
The Elza Gatehouse, named after a small, nearby community, operated as one of three checkpoints positioned within the secret city. Many considered Elza the main entrance to Oak Ridge. During World War II, armed guards stood at the gatehouse 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They ensured that access to Oak Ridge remained continuously controlled, only allowing authorized personnel to pass through. When Oak Ridge opened to the public, the city soon became famous for its technological achievements.
At the time of the Elza Gate’s opening, this revolutionary scientific community still produced enriched uranium at K-25, but the future of nuclear production was uncertain. Over 20,000 workers had lost their jobs with the closure of the Y-12 plant. An ongoing bus strike prevented many locals from attending the opening ceremonies. These difficulties reflected the uncertainty Oak Ridge faced as the Manhattan Project came to an end and the site sought a new purpose. The city’s opening ceremony featured a parade with 16 trained riders, numerous floats, and 20 marching bands. It publicly announced that the Manhattan Project’s extreme secrecy was over and signaled to Oak Ridge residents that the town’s main employer, the Atomic Energy Commission, had fully committed to the city’s future economic growth.
This gatehouse operated as part of a security system that controlled access to Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. It employed 4,900 civilian guards, 740 military police officers and over 400 civilian police officers.
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Guests visiting other former gatehouse sites, such as Midway Gatehouse and the Turnpike Gatehouse, can gain a sense of the tight security during WWII. Although few knew the purpose of the city and its top-secret facilities, the great effort to protect atomic secrets impacted all residents of Oak Ridge.
The Elza Gatehouse has since been demolished. The Elza Gate Park exists at the original gate’s location. You can find walking trails and wayside exhibits related to the Elza Gate’s role during the Manhattan Project.