Today we mark a noteworthy anniversary in the history of the world—and in the history of Appalachia, although I don’t think we really associate the two as we should.
Lots of people know that the enriched uranium in “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago, came from the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge here in East Tennessee. At the very least, they know that Oak Ridge was involved somehow in the Manhattan Project. But while plenty of people know of East Tennessee’s connection to the atomic bombing, I suspect they don’t really “get” it. “Appalachia” connotes backwardness; people think of the mountains as a place of log cabins and hardscrabble farms, not the advent of the atomic age.
Even here in East Tennessee, it seems to me that we tend to see Oak Ridge’s wartime experience as somehow set apart from the rest of our history, as a kind of singular, brief moment in time when we suddenly became relevant before slipping back out of the mainstream. Because we’ve let ourselves be convinced of our isolation and exceptionalism, we don’t really “own” this instance that proves how wrong those notions of isolation and exceptionalism are. But Oak Ridge’s history, and thus the history of the atomic bomb and the world it made and unmade, is a part of Appalachian history.
Part of the job of Appalachian historians, I think, is to figure out how to integrate these aspects of the region’s past that don’t fit people’s expectations into a more comprehensive narrative. Maybe this would help erode some of the simplistic stereotypes that continue to define popular notions of what the region is, and what it isn’t. East Tennessee’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb might be a good entry point for this sort of thing, but that won’t happen as long as we see it as some singular development in the region’s history that has little to do with the rest of it.
With that out of the way, here are some links in recognition of what happened seventy years ago today.
Shift change at Y-12 in 1945. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons
…things are still turning up and going kablooie, even in the Pacific Northwest:
On April 22, members of the U.S. Army’s 707th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Company left their base on a mission to detonate a very unusual object.
Construction crews had discovered an Absterdam Type 2/3 Projectile in Ilwaco, Washington. This type of explosive artillery shell dates to around the time of the American Civil War.
The round sat undisturbed until being discovered more than a century-and-half later. It may sound strange, but this happens more often than you might think.
Capt. Shawn McMickle, the soldiers’ company commander, said that he’s responded to three Civil War-era explosives since he’s served with the Army in the Pacific Northwest.
The same thing happened at LMU when I was an undergrad. Some guys were digging a water line and unearthed something like fifteen Civil War-era shells near an old dorm building. To make a long story short, an EOD team came down from Ft. Campbell, dug up the whole cache, took them behind the basketball arena, and a massive BANG! ensued.
Oddly enough, the shells turned up right across from the museum. The campus is practically within sight of Cumberland Gap, which changed hands four times during the war, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been too surprised. But it was still a shock to find live shells buried just a stone’s throw from our galleries, with their Civil War weapons sitting dormant and harmless in glass cases. One look at the EOD guys’ gear reminded you what we too often forget: those objects were meant to wreak havoc on human bodies.
Speaking of buried Civil War artifacts, two guys just got a hefty fine and two years of supervised release for pilfering a Hotchkiss shell in southeastern Tennessee. Let this be a reminder to all you knuckleheads to let sleeping ordnance lie.
Okay, here are two quick things I’d like everybody reading this blog to do.
First, as you may recall, we’re doing a special fundraising drive on behalf of Marble Springs State Historic Site this year in commemoration of the bicentennial of Gov. John Sevier’s death. We’ve just set up a new, super-easy way to contribute to this campaign at GoFundMe, so if you haven’t made a donation yet, please take a minute to do so.
Of course, you can still contribute via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or by sending a check in the mail. If you can’t afford $200, feel free to contribute whatever you can. We’ll gladly accept donations of any size. When it comes to small historic sites, every contribution makes a big difference.
It’s a tough economic climate for smaller historic sites and museums, and some of the funding sources we regularly depend on are shrinking, so I strongly encourage everybody who loves Tennessee history, the American Revolution, and preservation to pitch in.
Second, there’s a historic home here in Knoxville in danger of being lost to development. You can show your opposition to demolishing this historic property by adding your signature to the petition at Change.org.
To be honest with you, I’m just burned out on this Civil War Sesquicentennial thing, so let’s set aside the obligatory Appomattox post, unwind a little, and take a look at this listicle of twenty historic houses to visit in Tennessee. Here are my observations, for whatever they’re worth:
- The Carter Mansion is right there near the top. Well done. (I’m quite fond of the Carter Mansion, you know.)
- Blount Mansion made the list. Good.
- No Marble Springs on the list. Home of Tennessee’s first governor. Put it on the list, already.
- Tipton-Haynes made the list, and it has a Sevier association. This mitigates some of my vexation over the omission of Marble Springs. Not all of it, but a little. Actually, Sevier would probably be totally miffed to see Tipton’s home and Jackson’s home on the list when his own home is omitted.
- More eighteenth-century homes on the list than I expected, which is nice.
- No Andrew Johnson home on the list. Homes of two other Tennessee presidents listed, but no Johnson. What gives?
- Not one, not two, but three houses associated with the Battle of Franklin on the list. That’s more than the number of John Bell Hood’s functional limbs. Pick either the Carter House or Carnton, for crying out loud.
- Technically, I suppose Graceland is a historic home, but I think we all know it’s not a real historic home, right? Judging by the supermarket tabloids, we can’t even be sure the guy who lived there is dead.
- The Lincoln quote at the top of the site is a worthy sentiment, but I doubt he actually said it.
- You know what could’ve replaced one of those Battle of Franklin houses? Sgt. York’s home. That would’ve been cool.
This is a legitimately big deal:
A plan years in the making for a new Tennessee State Museum next to Nashville’s Bicentennial Mall may finally get funding for construction.
Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed allocating $120 million for a new state museum as part of an amendment to his 2015-16 budget that includes nearly $300 million in additional non-recurring investments. To become a reality, the new museum would also require $40 million in private funds from the museum’s ongoing fundraising efforts.
The governor’s office says it is moving forward on the museum and other new capital projects because franchise and excise tax collections exceeded estimates last month as a result of “an unusual one-time event” on top of other revenue collections and program savings.
“I think all of the plans have been pretty well agreed to, and this could move along pretty quickly now that we have the funding in place,” Tennessee Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin said of the museum.
It’s pretty exciting. I just hope the new galleries will be as jam-packed with artifacts as the current exhibits in the Polk building. The best thing about the current facility is the fact that you get to come face to face with so much awesome stuff. It’s that encounter with so many incredible objects that makes a visit to the state museum so special: personal effects from the Donelson party’s harrowing flatboat voyage to Middle Tennessee, the Peale portrait of Sevier, and (of course) that exhibit case full of King’s Mountain treasures.
If the new galleries keep the collections at the forefront in the same manner as the current exhibits, while employing the latest techniques to interpret them, then we’re going to be in for a great show.
As regular readers of this blog know, I have the honor of serving on the board of the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association. GJSMA supports the programming and operations at Marble Springs State Historic Site, Sevier’s final home in Knoxville, TN.
This year marks an important anniversary in Tennessee history. It’s the bicentennial of John Sevier’s death. To commemorate the occasion, GJSMA is undertaking a special fundraising initiative for 2015, called “$200 for 200.”
We’re asking folks who love history, museums, and Tennessee’s heritage to make a $200 donation to support our programming, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Sevier’s death. Donors who make this special bicentennial gift will be recognized on our $200 for 200 web page, and will also receive these benefits for one year:
- Free site tours for two adults and our children
- Free admission for two adults and four children to our special John Sevier Days event in September
- 10% off gift shop purchases
- Discounts for our special workshop events
- A discount on site rentals
It’s a great way to support a fantastic historic site and do something meaningful in recognition of an important Tennessee anniversary. If you’d like to join our $200 for 200 effort, you can donate via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or send a check to Marble Springs, P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 37940.
I know that a lot of you folks who read the blog appreciate Tennessee’s history and its historic places, so I hope you’ll consider a donation. Thanks!
I’ve spent the whole War of 1812 Bicentennial waiting to post this. *squeals with delight*
Fun fact: Jimmy Driftwood, the guy who wrote this ditty, was actually an Arkansas schoolteacher and principal named James Corbitt Morris, who used music to liven up his history classes. In 1936 he set his own lyrics to a traditional song about the battle called “The Eighth of January.”
Driftwood got a recording contract about twenty years later, but “The Battle of New Orleans” didn’t become a sensation until Johnny Horton heard it on the radio while driving home from a show and decided to do his own version. Horton got a hit, Driftwood got a second career as a musician, and we got a song so awesome it almost makes up for the White House getting torched.