Documentary films on the history of Oak Ridge, videos

Among the best methods we have for effectively conveying our Oak Ridge story are the various forms of visual media that seem to continue to gain popularity. Using oral histories on video is also a great way to tell our story. We have over 900 oral histories at the Oak Ridge Public Library (many of which are videos):

The Atomic Heritage Foundation also has a huge archive of 600 oral histories online: Cindy Kelly, founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, recently spoke with the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association and noted that there was 12 hours of oral history from General Leslie Groves, as well as a great story Robert Oppenheimer’s oral that his family thinks is the best record of him speaking.

Katie Strickland's cookie mold is on display at the K-25 History Center.

Several years ago, at the height of DVD popularity and long before the recent recognition of such forms of communication such as Zoom and other virtual meeting formats, Keith McDaniel created the Secret City series of two documentary films (” Secret City: The War Years and Secret City: Years 1945 -2006 “). I was happy to be invited to help him by being part of the advisory steering committee for him and to be included as a co-producer.

D. Ray Smith, Historically Speaking columnist.

First released in 2005, this award-winning documentary is what I consider Oak Ridge’s most effective story during the Manhattan Project years. It is now available online at: It is accompanied on site Y-12 by the following appropriate description:

“A landmark documentary film that became the definitive story of the Manhattan Project years in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The incredible story is told by many who lived it. Oak Ridge’s heritage is one of great scientific and technical feats in history Told from a human perspective, the unique work undertaken at Oak Ridge literally changed the world forever.

The second documentary film in the Secret City series, The Oak Ridge Story is also available online: The website description states:

A documentary sequel to Secret City: The War Years that follows the story of Oak Ridge, TN after the Manhattan Project and documents many examples from the history of science. The film continues the dramatic story of Oak Ridge as the once-secret city grows and takes its place among the world’s most important science and technology centers.

One of the most effective methods of using these documentaries for me has been to encourage teachers to show segments of them to their students while having them write down questions they would like to ask the historian of. Oak Ridge. Then the teacher calls me via FaceTime and I interact directly with the students by answering their questions over the phone.

Keith McDaniel's Secret City series is in my opinion the best source in the history of Oak Ridge.

“A nuclear family”, “Our hidden past”

Other documentaries and short videos are also available online. Many of them were created while I was a historian at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Before retiring in November 2017, these videos were uploaded:

Among the most viewed was the four-part, 30-minute “A Nuclear Family” series on the history of the Y-12 National Security Complex created for the East Tennessee PBS television station. Also included are two short introductory videos and additional extras.

A video series, “Our Hidden Past,” includes popular videos such as The Prophet of Oak Ridge, which is the story of John Hendrix, and From Oak Ridge to the Moon, which tells the Y-12 production of the ‘Apollo lunar sample. Return container or “Moon Box”. The “Our Hidden Past” series also includes the following elements: 1st mission; Biology, Part 1; Biology, Part 2; Peacetime; and precious metals.

An introductory video for Part Y-12 of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is also included in this video gallery.

One of my favorite documentaries I was working on just before I retired from Y-12 is Ed Westcott: Photographer.

Yvonne Thomas' excellent documentary on

This movie was born when Ed showed me a 16mm film of him getting into a helicopter to take aerial photos of Oak Ridge and climbing the ladder to the Pine Ridge Water Tower to take the famous photo. panorama of Oak Ridge. At that point, I knew we had the heart of a documentary film.

Ed had had a stroke and was unable to speak clearly, so putting him in front of the camera to speak was out of the question. I had a hard time figuring out how to make the movie for a while. I often went to Ed’s house, taking some of his photographs with me that I had printed out for him to dedicate and allow me to auction off for non-profit organizations. He did it with pleasure.

But once he motioned for me to follow him to his room where he had set up the projector and showed me the 16mm film. I said, “Ed, let me digitize this and I can use it to form part of a documentary film about your life.” He laughed and said, “Go ahead! “

What a delight for me it was. I wanted to honor Ed so much. I had the privilege of being able to present the Muddy Boot Award from the East Tennessee Economic Council to Ed in 2013 and, of course, he had received many prestigious awards, but no movie had yet. been shot on him.

Another visual media format that is gaining momentum with more and more people using virtual meetings is the video podcast. Keith McDaniel and I created “Hidden History: Stories from the Secret City”. We started by thinking of an audio podcast, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we still wanted to do the podcast, but couldn’t easily connect in person.

Zoom was just starting to be used and we agreed that a video podcast would be better anyway. So we started and did a video podcast every Saturday for the past year and nine months, with the exception of a short break during the Knoxville Film Festival when Keith was busy there.

These programs average 30-40 minutes in length and typically feature a guest who brings out an aspect of Oak Ridge history that may not be well known. Examples of past guests are Richard Rhodes, author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”; Robert Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb”; and Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of President Truman.

Several local people such as Niki Nicholas, manager, Manhattan Project National Historical Park – Oak Ridge; Alan Lowe, Executive Director, American Museum of Science and Energy; Also on the program were Terry Domm, president of the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association, along with Mick Wiest, executive director of ORHPA, and Emily Hunnicutt, chair of the Oak Ridge History Museum committee.

The “Hidden History: Stories from the Secret City” programs are available on Facebook (just search for the page by name) and here:

And, by the way, Keith also posted his award-winning documentary film “The Clinton 12” there!

Other video-based approaches are taken by the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, and Explore Oak Ridge. Others are planned.

Here’s a great example of what AMSE is doing: “Riley” is an intern working at the museum and she is a lovely host for several videos. Just search Google for “amse video riley” and you will find videos showing you the main areas of the museum.

I’m working with Explore Oak Ridge Executive Director Katy Watt to present a “Historical Speaking” column featuring a video-based promotional campaign. Of course, they already have several videos online. Here is a video that presents our museums:

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park has several great short videos here:

This video features Ruth Huddleston, a Calutron girl:

This video showcases Katie Strickland’s cookie mold:

Although I have listed many videos here, I’m sure I missed more such as those produced by History Channel, Lost Worlds, Secret Cities of the A-Bomb and Modern Marvels: The Manhattan Project and even the Manhattan TV series. I also didn’t mention the Knoxville TV stations which did a great video job on the history of Oak Ridge.

One example is the recent video documentary “The Secret in Scarboro: The Oak Ridge 85” produced by Yvonne Thomas, formerly of WBIR-TV, Channel 10: There are many other videos produced more easily with today’s smartphones.

A few years ago, a special effort was made to get high school students interested in the production of short videos. I was interviewed by many students who produced videos for the annual History Day competition.

Keith McDaniel now teaches video production at Roane County High School. Bill Carey, History for Kids, uses the zoom to teach our history online. There is a lot going on! We must be sure to take full advantage of visual media!

JD Phillips has produced short YouTube videos at numerous locations in East Tennessee. Here’s an example:, Oak Ridge, Tennessee: The Early Years.

My intention was to provide your readers with access to some of the many local documentary films that are online and easily accessible.

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