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Northern Michigan played a small but important role in Oppenheimer, Manhattan Project

As people head to the movie theater this weekend for the highly anticipated “Oppenheimer” film, they might not know that the movie’s titular character has a tie to Northern Michigan.

“Oppenheimer” follows physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his work during the Manhattan Project, developing and designing the atomic bomb.

Otsego Lake has been the setting for many summer family outings, but in the summer of 1942, it was the location for one of the nation’s top theoretical physicists to meet with his boss and discuss the Manhattan Project.

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According to the Otsego County Historical Society and the Compton family, Oppenheimer arrived by train at the Otsego Lake Depot where his boss, Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, drove from his lake house on Otsego Lake, picked him up and drove him to the Otsego Lake State Park.

Otsego County historian Phil Alexander explained, “That was a place they could discuss everything without concerns of anyone listening in.”

Along with discussion surrounding the Manhattan Project, it was at this meeting where Oppenheimer told Compton he had found the possibility for nuclear fusion, an important principle needed for a hydrogen bomb.

The Otsego County Historical Society says people familiar with the story assume the discussion was about whether or not the U.S. should drop the atomic bomb. He says the meeting actually happened way before that.

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“This was deciding whether or not they should even do some testing because it could have exploded the entire atmosphere,” Alexander stated.

And while Oppenheimer’s visit wasn’t long he did stop by Compton’s summer home for lunch and to discuss more. Compton’s granddaughter, Catherine Compton Swanson, remembered her dad telling her about Oppenheimer’s visit.

“After my grandfather and Oppenheimer left the state park for their very secret meeting, my father at 14-years-old remembers Oppenheimer coming back for lunch at the small cabin,” Catherine recalled.

Over 80 years after their secret meeting the lake house still stands and is still owned by the Compton family. A historical marker about the meeting can be found at Otsego Lake State Park.

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“It just makes Otsego Lake a very meaningful place to me and many others I’m sure,” Catherine admitted.

Catherine said she hasn’t seen the movie yet and said she isn’t sure if Oppenheimer’s connection to Compton is shown in the film.

“I’m not sure it will. This is pretty much local history that’s for us to know about and other people to learn,” Catherine said.

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