ROMULUS, N.Y. (WETM) – Over 80 years ago, the U.S. government accomplished something that probably seemed impossible: in just a few months, the Army cleared out nearly 17 square miles in Seneca County and built a base for World War II.
The story of the Seneca Army Depot (referred to by the federal and state governments as “SEDA” or “SEAD”) is a long and complex one. A story that involves devastated families, patriotism, empty promises, massive job opportunities, protests, natural beauty, tourism, and environmental concerns.
It’s a story that, for whatever reason, has fallen through the cracks of time and is largely unknown. However, the people at the heart of the story, no matter their opinions of the Depot, all feel that the story is important to remember and can teach a new generation some important lessons.
What’s in this article…
What is the Seneca Army Depot?
In 1941, the U.S. government realized the country would be getting into World War II eventually, so to prepare, the War Department (later the Department of Defense) decided to build four huge ammunition storage bases. These bases were in the four corners of the lower 48, close enough to the coast to be accessible, but inland enough to be safe from an attack. Along with the Seneca Army Depot in NY, the Army built bases in Umatilla, OR, Fort Wingate, NM, and Addison, AL.
“It was to be a munitions supply base to store weapons that could be used to help defend against an enemy attack, especially from the air, if that were to happen,” explained Seneca County Historian Walt Gable.
In 2011, Gable and fellow historian Carolyn Zogg wrote the book “Seneca Army Depot: Fighting Wars from the New York Home Front.” In it, they did extensive research into the history of the land, how Seneca was chosen as the site, and what actually went on there, speaking with several former employees and local families.
SEDA is not a small facility, though. In all, the Army took over 10,587 acres of land in the towns of Romulus and Varick to make way for the Depot. That’s almost 17 square miles and just shy of the entire size of the Town of Montour in Schuyler County.
Why Seneca County?
Seneca County is largely nestled between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, so it’s a pretty remote community. That might lead to the question, “Why put the base here?” But that isolation is also part of the answer, with the base accessible but far enough away from large urban centers.
As Truman Bells, manager of Deer Haven Park on the old Depot property, explained, the combination of factors that led to Seneca being chosen was “a perfect storm”.
For one, there were two rail lines (part of the old Lehigh Valley Railroad) on either side of the property. The bedrock was also perfect. The large amounts of shale ensured that an explosion in one of the bunkers (or igloos) would be absorbed by the ground and not spread to the other 500 igloos.
Walt explained that it was also probably political, a sentiment echoed by Diane Theetge and Nora Creswell, the granddaughters of a family forced off their land. The local congressman at the time, John Taber, was a Republican and very against FDR’s defense budget that included the four bases, Walt’s book explains. However, just a few months before the Depot was to be built, Taber changed his mind and threw his support behind FDR.
And perhaps both most importantly and most poignantly, the government likely realized that a remote community like Romulus wasn’t populated with people that were going to put up much of a fight. Military officers and newspapers at the time spun the story by saying these families were patriotic and all-American, or “preponderantly good American stock”, according to a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article from the time.
Watch Seneca County Historian Walt Gable’s full interview below:
How did they build it?
“It’s incredible to me to think that over 10,000 acres were just, inside of a month, went from all these families… to the United States government,” Truman said.
The project originally was estimated to cost around $8 million (in 2000 when the Depot closed, the Army said the same project would cost $850 million today). And again, SEDA is a huge facility; in the end, the Army built hundreds of concrete igloos and several other buildings and structures on the grounds. And it did it at lightning speed.
By early June 1941, the government had decided to build the Depot in Seneca County with a deadline of spring 1942. In early July, early construction started with a 24-mile fence around the property. By November 15, construction of the last igloo was done.
In just over four months, the Army completely transformed the landscape and built at least 500 concrete igloos to store the ammunition. These igloos are impressive structures in and of themselves.
While they may look deceivingly small on the outside covered with grass, shrubs and dirt, they are nothing short of gigantic inside. Standing 20 feet across, 60 to 80 feet deep, and around 15 feet high, it’s easy to imagine just how much ammunition was being stored at Seneca.
When I visited the Depot on an unusually hot, 95-degree day in April 2023, I was blasted with a face full of cold air opening the 1,000-pound door. The air was cold enough that we could actually see our breaths inside the igloo.
And then, there’s the sound.
Completely encased in concrete, there’s nowhere for any sound to go, so even the smallest whisper or tap of the foot reverberates for seconds on end. Truman said he’s gotten multiple requests over the years for singers or sound designers to spend more time in the igloos, recording songs or ambient sound. Trying to have a simple conversation inside or even just outside the door becomes near impossible.
Watch Diane Theetge’s and Nora Creswell’s full interview below:
The Depot started out with a construction force of about 3,000 people and they were building about one igloo each day. However, as time went on, the government realized the threat of war was more and more imminent, so the spring 1942 deadline got pushed up further and further.
It was a race against the clock.
Eventually, the workforce expanded to over 8,600, the budget jumped to nearly $12 million, and the daily igloo count reached at least 11. They wrapped up the last one in mid-November, just three weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor that officially brought the U.S. into WWII.
“I mean, the building power of it, the manpower that came in it did this. And it’s… Wow,” Diane Theetge remarked. “Even today I don’t think they could have done it much faster.”
A double-edged sword
Of course, there’s the other side to the coin.
A project of this size was bound to bring with it some problems. A big one was the health and sanitation in the towns around the Depot while it was being built.
According to a video published by the New York State Health Department in 1941, the population of Seneca County outside Waterloo and Seneca Falls was only 14,000 people. It wasn’t a community equipped to suddenly take in another 8,600.
On one hand, yes, local businesses boomed during construction. Diane and Nora pointed out that Romulus had a successful local bank at the time, and local school districts grew and grew and grew.
However, towns like Romulus, Varick, or Ovid didn’t have the infrastructure to support that many people in such close quarters. Workers didn’t have proper access to shelter, clean water or sewer systems. Rooms at local hotels were fully booked, local families were renting out rooms in their own homes, and the old Ovid school house even became temporary housing, according to the health department.
Even then, there still wasn’t enough room, so workers created tent colonies that encroached on the property of locals. Some even slept in the back of vehicles or just outside.
Eventually, the federal government helped create a trailer city inside the track at the Seneca County fairgrounds in Waterloo, as well as seven others near Kendaia. Then, the state released its video meant to showcase what a strong effort the health department made to address health conditions by testing water or providing nurses for kids of families who worked at the Depot.
Still, many workers went on strike until officials addressed the problems. And even though the Depot continued to employ people for decades, that initial boom somewhat collapsed after construction finished up and the workers moved out.