The preparation for military conflict is called “mobilization”, and the distinctive glossary of warfare speaks of deployment and matériel and ordnance. Things that have to be moved into place can be as big as a battleship or as small as a bullet. It doesn’t even have to be tangible; Edward R. Murrow said of Winston Churchill, “He mobilized the English language.”Mobilization can mean setting forces into action or getting stuff out of the way.
In the days leading up to American involvement in World War II and for the next five decades a section of the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York State was the scene of high-level mobilization. Some 11,000 acres of rural countryside in the Seneca County towns of Romulus and Varick were impounded in 1941, fenced off, placed under heavy guard and became the Seneca Army Depot (SEAD). The depot served to warehouse and distribute explosives for the war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, remained active through the Korean conflict, supported American readiness during the Cold War and finally was important to the success of Operation Desert Storm.
With the phaseout of the depot the entire history can now be told and a new book “The Seneca Army Depot: Fighting Wars from the New York Home Front” covers both the national policy dimension and the effect on the local community. The book was written by Seneca County historian Walter Gable and Carolyn Zogg, director of the Seneca Falls Historical Society. Mr. Gable taught social studies in the SenecaCounty schools for thirty years and was president of the New York State Council for Social Studies. Ms. Zogg is an art educator and served on the board in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the women’s rights movement. Both authors hold degrees from Syracuse University.
“The Seneca Army Depot” tells the story of a secretive institution that came into existence prior to America’s official entry into World War II. The Finger Lakes location was chosen for its geographical, transportation and even geological benefits. About 150 families were evicted from their homes and farms, some with only three days’ notice. The book lists all their names. There was some resentment on the part of the dispossessed individuals, although the official proposal by the War Department said that “the Army’s neighbors are 100 percent American” and would patriotically accept their loss. Construction of bomb-proof “igloos” began quickly and preparations for storage of ordnance moved forward more efficiently than did accomodations for thouands of workers and their families. At the same time the depot stimulated a wartime economic boom for the region.
The book details military activity and community life during and after World War II. It also tells about how the Army depot became something of a fenced-in wildlife refuge with the presence of what is believed to be the largest herd of white deer in the world. But the chapter in the Depot’s history that has attracted the most attention begins on page 82:
Approximately two thousand barrels of uranium pitchblende, as part of the Manhattan Project, were stored in igloos E0181 through E0811 on the south end of the depot. Depot employee John Stahl spoke specifically of the first box of Mamhattan Project materials that was brought into the depot. He operated the forklift truck that took the box from the railroad dock to the small igloo where it was to be stored. He remembered thinking at the time that it was odd to him why an item marked “Manhattan” would be coming here to the depot rather than to New York City.
The Manhattan Project, with its deliberately bland name, would draw the war to a conclusion with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the presence of atomic weapons at SEAD — even if never confirmed nor denied by official sources — was more than a presumption. References to “special weapons” began in 1957 and Gable and Zogg find many clues to the presence of at least battlefield nuclear devices, such as the public listing of such occupational skills at the depot as “nuclear weapons officer”. Starting in 1983, demonstrations by an umbrella group called Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment brought attention to the likely presence of nuclear weapons and an ongoing harassment of normal operations at the depot.
The closure of the base was nearly as contentious as its establishment. The depot had become an economic engine for Seneca County but the end of the Cold War also brought a general reduction of military activity, including the shutdown of many installations in the U.S. and abroad. At the Seneca Army Depot there was resistance to being precipitously shut down and legal and lobbying efforts got the base included under the terms of the 1990 Base Realignment and Closure Act, with improved benefits for the remaining 500 employees. But there was no unified plan for the future of the 10,000 acres that had been taken in 1940. A portion was consigned to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency. Other property was used for a law enforcement training center and a correctional facility. There were several serviceable warehouses that could be sold and the depot does have a 7,000-foot airstrip. One use was clearly ruled out: because of the continuing concern about pollutants left over from the military activity the acreage cannot revert to farmland.