ROMULUS, N.Y. (WETM) – When the Seneca Army Depot closed in 2000, its memory, more or less, dropped off the map. For many people, even people growing up in Seneca County, its complex history has been forgotten and neglected in history class.
But for the people who lived it or whose parents lived it, it can’t be forgotten because there are so many elements that make the story of the Depot so layered and so rich.
What’s in this article…
- What went on at Seneca Army Depot?
- Nukes: Neither confirm nor deny
- Closing the Depot
- Cleaning up
- The Depot today and the Seneca white deer
- What’s next?
What went on at Seneca Army Depot?
Throughout World War II, SEDA was essentially a place where all sorts of ammunition were dropped off, stored, picked up, and shipped out for the war effort. After the war, operations started to expand, as did the property.
The airfield in the southwest corner of the Depot wasn’t built until around 10 years later for the Sampson Air Force Base on Seneca Lake. Also in the decades after WWII, the Coast Guard put up a radio tower, there were ranges and fields for rifle and grenade practice, recruits completed basic training there, and the Depot was shipping out Industrial Plant Equipment (IPE), machine parts that would be used to build ammunition in other locations.
Seneca Army Depot was essentially a self-functioning city. It had its own police department, fire department, rail lines, and even a mail service. There was even a Burger King in the north-end recreation area.
It made its mark in the community, and people got involved. Diane said up until the 1970s, things were pretty lax.
“As a teenager, I was able to go in there and go to the non-commissioned officers club, and just go in and hang out with the cuties,” she recalled with a laugh.
Neither confirm nor deny
In 1970, Robert Zemanek (a man with plenty of experience as a US Army “information specialist” around the world), became the public affairs officer at SEDA after the previous PAO retired. At the same time, his wife Claudia worked in the budget office at the Depot.
He and Claudia recounted with a laugh how people in the community started rumors that Seneca was housing an underground bunker because they’d see huge cargo planes fly over the lake and into the Depot. The couple said they got questions from locals claiming to see “the ground open up” and the planes fly inside.
During the Cold War, SEDA started to make national headlines because of the North Depot Activity, called the “Q Area”. Rumor had it that Seneca was storing nuclear weapons and/or parts of nuclear weapons, and people got upset.
Bob had to answer a lot of questions from the public and from the press, but all he could do was repeat the government line over and over.
“It’s the policy of the Department of Defense to neither confirm or deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any location,” Bob recounted with a smile. “You’d think that would have been a big deal, but that was only at the confidential level. It wasn’t even top secret or anything.”
The Q-Area had incredibly tight security. Truman Bells, manager of Deer Haven Park, explained that the first of three fences had some microwave system to help pinpoint a breach, and the second was reportedly electrified with 4,800 volts (double the amount of an electric chair). A New York Times report said officer guards had the authority to shoot and kill anyone who got over the fence.
But again, the Army wouldn’t confirm nuclear weapons were there.
In 1983, the pressure reached a boiling point and protestors, mainly women, set up the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in Romulus. Throughout the summer and fall, nearly 12,000 women from all over the country came to protest the alleged nuclear weapons. Famous pediatrician and activist Dr. Benjamin Spock even joined and climbed the fence to intentionally get arrested as an act of civil disobedience.
Carl Post — whose family was forced off their land in 1941 — was married to a woman who worked in the Q-Area for the Depot’s second man in command. But “nothing was discussed” about the rumors, Carl said.
The nukes basically became the Depot’s biggest unkept secret. Freedom of Information requests, New York Times reports, technical manuals, job postings, Army brochures, and training exercises all pointed to the fact that nuclear weapons were stored there.
But still, the Army never confirmed or denied it.
It came to light that 40 years earlier, SEDA stored barrels of radioactive uranium pitchblende for the Manhattan Project. The military later gave a Geiger counter (now on display at Deer Haven Park) to the Willard State Hospital in the 1980s.
But still, the Army never confirmed or denied it.
When asked point-blank if SEDA stored nuclear weapons or parts of nuclear weapons, Bob Zemanek replied with a simple, “Yeah… At this point, what do I care? I’m not going to deny it.”
But another interesting thing happened during the protests. Contrary to 1941 when many locals were upset at the Depot taking over the land, the sudden influx of thousands of protestors in the streets created tension, especially because so many people in Seneca County had been employed by the Depot since it opened.
“Generally, I think what these protests did was rally a lot of the local people to the defense of the place,” Bob explained. “When you’re talking a workforce of over a thousand people plus a couple of military units, it’s a pretty good boost to the economy.”
Watch Bob Zemanek’s full interview below:
Closing the Depot
The economic boom didn’t last forever because when the Cold War ended in 1991, the Army realized it didn’t need all this weaponry on hand anymore. So in 1995, SEDA was put on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. The government has put dozens of military compounds on this list to either repurpose them or close them since the final years of the Cold War.
The closure process took about five years and on September 30, 2000, Seneca Army Depot officially closed for good. Also in 1995, the Willard State Hospital (just over a mile to the south of SEDA) also closed. These two institutions, combined, were likely Seneca County’s largest employers.
“It is a heartache because yeah, it took away so much from this community,” Diane Theetge said. She and her older sister Nora live in Ovid; their grandfather was forced off his land in 1941 in Romulus. “It really tore this community up.”
Diane explained how the closure forced many working adults to move all over again because there suddenly was a job vacuum in Seneca County. For example, Romulus used to have its own bank, but that’s no more.
The schools were hit hard, too. A “slap in the face”, as Carl Post put it.
At one point, Interlaken, Ovid, and Lodi all had their own school districts that were expanding with all the Depot worker families living in the area, Diane and Nora said. But today, those three towns are all combined into the South Seneca Central School District, centered in Ovid.
Since SEDA closed in 2000, the federal government has worked to clean it up. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees the Army’s cleanup work, and for the most part, the vast majority of the land has been cleared for a certain amount of use.
Reports from the EPA pointed out that the Depot generated 18 tons of trash each week, which was burned in large incinerators. Those have since been cleaned.
The EPA said that the former open detonation grounds in the northwest corner of the Depot property are the only parts still controlled and cleaned by the government. This is where the Army would explode extra or “bad” ammunition in the dirt throughout the years.
“Every day, you would hear these boom, boom, booms,” said Sally VanRiper Eller, the daughter of a couple forced off their land. She grew up a few miles away along Cayuga Lake. Carl Post, who lived about eight miles away, even said the detonations could be heard loud and clear across most of the southern half of the county.
A 2021 five-year review from the EPA showed that much of the property has Land Use Controls in place which restrict certain residential and groundwater use. The EPA plans to announce a cleanup plan for the Open Detonation grounds in September 2023.
Watch Truman Bells’ full interview below:
SEDA today and the white deer
Over the last 23 years, various parts of the Depot have been given back to the County. Seneca County then turned most of it over to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency. And over the years, it’s become more and more productive.
Today, some land is used for Five Points Correctional Facility, the Sheriff’s Office, NYSP and fire training grounds, and a fiber optics company in the Q-Area. There are even regular Sports Car Club of America autocross races on the airfield. Over time, two separate youth treatment programs opened, as well; however, both have since closed.
“The civilian employment at the former Seneca Army Depot was actually greater in 2015, for example, than the civilian employment was in 1995,” Seneca County historian Walt Gable explained. “That’s a true statement.”
In 2016, the IDA was auctioning off thousands of acres to get the property back on the tax rolls. But that was a tough sell. There are 500 concrete igloos, environmental restrictions, and a notable lack of infrastructure.
One business owner bought the land, though, because he promised to meet the conditions of the people.
“There was outcry,” Walt said. “A lot of the public turned out for meetings of the board of supervisors to say that you must protect these white deer herds.”
Far and away, the Depot today is known for the locally-legendary white deer.
It’s simple: when the Army fenced in 11,000 acres in 1941, it protected any and all wildlife inside. Deer could jump the fence, but their predators could not. So they were safe.
There’s also an important distinction: the Seneca white deer are not albinos. They carry a recessive leucistic gene that makes their fur white, but doesn’t leave their skin or eyes pink like albinos.
Earl Martin, owner of Seneca Iron Works and now Seneca Dairy Systems, won the bid for the property because he promised to make a 3,000-acre preserve for the deer, repairing fences and even planting crops to keep them inside. On the 95-degree I visited the Depot, several lounged in the shade in front of the igloos under the vents (vents originally designed to release and slam shut in the case of a fire). If the vents were open, the cold air came pouring out onto the deer, as if it was their personal air conditioner.
Truman said that at one point in the Depot’s history, the deer population got out of control, so the Army thinned the herd. But hunters were only allowed to shoot the brown white-tailed deer; the white deer had to be left alone. So, the number of white deer eventually reached near 300. Since SEDA closed, however, fences have fallen apart, meaning deer have escaped, been hit by cars, or been hunted. Since the deer don’t see color like people do, they’ll sit and stare at you from the woods, thinking they’re camouflaged but in reality, standing out like a sore thumb.
What prompted this entire report was a DEC announcement in March 2023 that the agency finished up an investigation into a hunter that illegally baited and poached a Seneca white deer and sold the cape and rack to a taxidermy shop in Oswego. Truman called it “callous” to take the life of something so precious, and something even the indigenous tribes revered centuries ago.
“We estimate there’s probably between 80 to 100 white deer that are left here,” Truman said. “We’ve noticed in the last four years, five years, since we’ve taken over and have been monitoring, that we have seen several more white deer fawns born every year.”
Interviewing anyone for this story, it became very clear that the white deer are something special. Every descendant of the dispossessed families had some personal memory of the deer; Walt remembers driving up and down the east and west sides of the Depot in the evening to get a glimpse of the deer; Truman was visibly moved by the phenomenon that is the white deer and recalled seeing cars on Route 96A nearly crash because they might see a quick flash of a white deer inside the fence; Bob said any visiting military personnel almost always wanted a ride in his car to search for the white deer.
But in a moment of poignant reflection on the damage done by Depot, Diane Theetge said, “Are they here so that we don’t forget? Were they given to Seneca County?”
Deer Haven Park on 96A treats the deer and other wildlife (eagles, geese, beavers, foxes, etc.) as wild animals, not a petting zoo. The park offers tours, both private and in your own car, to learn the history of the property and (hopefully) see some deer. The park’s welcome center also displays photos, maps, and memorabilia of the Depot before and after it was built, and sells merchandise related to the Depot and the deer (including a limited supply of 1980s Army brochures found in a box after the Depot closed). Truman said all the money from those purchases goes toward supporting the deer.
The former recreation area on the north end of the property is effectively a ghost town, a snapshot stuck in time. It’s owned by Earl Martin and contains old buildings and sports fields untouched since 2000.
There also lies an old theater used by Depot employees. Truman said one dream, no matter how lofty, would be to get the theater back up and running to teach the community about the land. Jennifer Merkle, Sally’s niece who has gone on her own journey of uncovering her family’s history, said it would love to see some kind of recreation of the Romulus and Varick pre-1941.
“I would love it if there was a historical group that got together or people that could pool.. old letters, the old photos, the old journals,” said Jennifer. “If you could pool together, and maybe recreate what this community was like. I think that would just be fascinating for myself.”
And that was the biggest recurring theme in talking to anyone about this story. The Seneca Army Depot has been forgotten, especially for younger generations.
One woman from Ovid only recently discovered her family was dispossessed in the 1950s to make way for the airfield. She reflected that she learned almost none of SEDA’s history in school; she said she barely even learned about the Seneca Falls Convention, a landmark moment in the history of the American women’s rights movement.
“I don’t think they teach near enough New York history, local history in the state,” said Nora Creswell, Diane’s older sister.
Sally expressed her appreciation for this story making its way on air. She said it’s important “keeping the awareness alive… There’s a lot of things that people went through, and thinking about how that shapes us.”
Both Diane and Jennifer echoed the age-old adage that history will repeat itself if it’s forgotten.
Diane reflected with a wry laugh, “Well, we also grew up, ‘If you don’t understand history, you repeat it.’ And it wasn’t just the class.”