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Before 1942 the area which now comprises Oak Ridge was a small collection of farm communities in Anderson and Roane Counties: Robertsville, Edgemoor, East Fork, Bethel Valley and Wheat. These communities were by far overshadowed by their neighbors: Clinton, in Anderson County and Kingston, in Roane County.
The area was chosen by the federal government as a site for developing materials for the Manhattan Project in 1942. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, liked the area for several reasons. Its relatively low population made acquisition affordable, yet the area was accessible by highway, rail, and water. Because the area was partitioned by ridges and valleys, it provided some natural protection against disasters at the four industrial plants planned to separate Uranium-235 from Uranium-238.
Beginning in late 1942 the United States Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring more than 60,000 acres for the Clinton Engineer Works under authority of the Corps' Manhattan Engineer District. Because nearly 100,000 workers were recruited to the area for the uranium separation project, the military constructed a town where the labor pool could live. The time required for the project's completion caused them to opt for a relatively permanent establishment rather than a camp of enormous size.
The use of the atomic bombs against Japan demonstrated to the people working at Oak Ridge for the first time just what they were working on. When World War II ended, Oak Ridge gradually was shifted to civilian control, first being handled by the Atomic Energy Commission. Eventually, a city manager and City Council were adopted by the community rather than direct federal control. The three major facilities created for the uranium separation projects are still standing today. K25, the site where the bulk of the uranium separation was conducted, is being decomissioned and decontaminated. Y12 was for a while used as a site for the construction of nuclear warheads and now is under different use. X10 was the site of a test graphite reactor and is now the site of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 232.9 km² (89.9 mi²). 221.6 km² (85.6 mi²) of it is land and 11.3 km² (4.4 mi²) of it is water. The total area is 4.86% water.
As of the census of 2000, there are 27,387 people, 12,062 households, and 7,695 families residing in the city. The population density is 123.6/km² (320.1/mi²). There are 13,417 housing units at an average density of 60.6/km² (156.8/mi²). The racial makeup of the city is 86.96% White, 8.18% African American, 0.30% Native American, 2.10% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.76% from other races, and 1.68% from two or more races. 1.93% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 12,062 households out of which 26.8% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 49.7% are married couples living together, 11.1% have a female householder with no husband present, and 36.2% are non-families. 32.7% of all households are made up of individuals and 15.0% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.24 and the average family size is 2.83.
In the city the population is spread out with 22.4% under the age of 18, 6.6% from 18 to 24, 23.6% from 25 to 44, 26.3% from 45 to 64, and 21.1% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 43 years. For every 100 females there are 88.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 83.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city is $41,950, and the median income for a family is $57,087. Males have a median income of $45,149 versus $27,500 for females. The per capita income for the city is $24,793. 10.9% of the population and 8.0% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 17.5% are under the age of 18 and 5.5% are 65 or older.