Paducah as Seen by LIFE Magazine
Atomic weaponry and energy was about as futuristic as it got in the early 1950s.  Paducah was thrust into the national limelight with the building of the gaseous diffusion plant in 1952 just west of town. LIFE magazine wrote a story on how Paducah was dealing with its newfound notoriety; and now, 60 years later, we take a unique look back at life at the dawn of the Atomic Age.


LIFE  -  July 14, 1952

Down in west Kentucky where people are noted for courtesy and rivers for big blue catfish, things have been pretty peaceful for a quarter century – especially in Paducah. A sleepy city, noted largely as Irvin Cobb’s home, it dozed through the years while its farmers followed their mules and its young men wandered north to find fortune. But now Paducah is sending its mules north to serve as dog food, while newly prosperous farmers ride tractors, and the young men are flooding in so fast that the population, 32,000 in 1950, has nearly doubled. Rudely shaken from its doze, Paducah is now exhausted from lack of sleep.

The thing that has most changed Paducah’s way of life is the U.S. decision to put a huge $500 million atomic energy center at the Ohio river, just 20 miles to the west. Some 22,000 workers are putting up the plant, which will be finished in 1953. Meanwhile, to the east, attracted by the power of TVA’s Kentucky dam on the Tennessee River, four big private chemical corporations are putting up new plants. This influx has prompted TVA to increase its power capacity and now, to the north of Paducah, it is setting up new electrical generators that will use more coal than Rhode Island. And across the river in Illinois, a private utility company is putting up a generating plant that is just as big.

Now, when catfish are biting, it is usually a steel-hatted construction worker who holds onto the line. The Paducahans themselves, caught up in the boom, are too busy for much fishing. Last year one of them made $10,000 just selling minnows for bait.

When the present projects are completed, the Paducah area will hold one of the biggest U.S. concentrations of electrical power, so the citizens do not feel their boom is temporary. Already they are used to new roads through the meadows and the lights and cars at night. They take it calmly on hearing that land once worth $20 an acre now sells for $2,000 and think it reasonable to see signs selling “business frontage” in fields where cows still graze.

From the start, their worst problem was housing. The first available rooms were soon rented. Then the trailers came in, some small, some boasting TV aerials, until 10,000 of them surrounded the town. New houses started up quickly: 2500 new units are already built or planned.

This spring, what seemed like another problem confronted Paducah. Most farmers left the land for construction jobs and the county lost 70% of its strawberry crop. But in the end, they figure, the boom will increase farm yields, for the farmers will improve their land with their new cash. The most unhappy note of all was sounded by the local airport, which put up a sign: “We apologize for our limited air passenger facilities. We had no way of anticipating the sudden traffic increase…”

Not everyone in Paducah is wholeheartedly behind the boom. Some old timers regard it coldly, and even some businessmen think it is a mixed blessing. Though month after month the city of Paducah has led the whole U.S. in gains in retail sales, the merchants complain that business is almost too good and long hours are killing them.

The thousands of workers appreciate the boom most of all – the combined payrolls of the seven new plants empty more than $4 million into their pockets each Friday. Thanks to an energetic “keep Paducah clean” movement, there are only modest ways to spend it. When the workers feel like more excitement they take their money 40 miles down the river to Cairo, Ill., where it is siphoned off in the nightclubs with girl shows.