Leo Roth | April 26, 2009
VARICK — The yellow school bus carrying 40 experimental tourists stopped in front of the rusty, once heavily fortified gates of the “Q Area” in the north end of the former Seneca Army Depot.
The one-square mile fortress within a fortress where people needed FBI clearance to work was the nation’s largest holding site for nuclear weapons, a scant 60 miles from downtown Rochester.
The military has never acknowledged this.
But roughly 15 years after the Army left and turned out the lights, plenty of acknowledgment of the top-secret nature of what did occur here remains.
Crumbling, overgrown evidence of the dedication and work it took to keep the weapons that stalemated the Soviet Union and won the Cold War against Communist oppression out of enemy hands.
Built in 1941 to store munitions that supplied troops from World War II through the first Gulf War, the depot’s nearly 11,000 acres are encircled by a 6½-foot fence topped with 18 inches of barbed wire.
The Q, which opened in 1958, had triple fencing. Utility poles carried lights and motion sensors equipped with bulletproof lenses. An MP force of 250 patrolled with machine guns 24/7.
“Picture this as an active military base,” said guide Dennis Money, his audience spellbound. “There would be no brush here, no grass, just gravel and the middle fence was operating at 4,800 volts, enough to vaporize you if you touched it. Armed guards would be on both sides.”
If anyone did manage to breach this gauntlet and get near the steel doors of one of the 64 concrete igloos or bunkers where 1,800 special weapons were kept, a vomit-producing smoke mixture of ammonium chloride would be detonated from a monitoring station. At that point, razor wire would be dropped on the intruders and more machine guns would be pointed at their heads.
“It would not be a very happy day for you,” Money said.
Preserving the land
It was a happy day for the mix of military buffs and wildlife watchers that toured the depot for just the second time in history last weekend and witnessed for the first time the Q Area. Traveling the depot roads, 60 years of military secrecy and the scope of wildlife hidden inside were peeled back.
Turning left inside the Q gates, the bus came upon two inhabited osprey nests, two red-tail hawk nests, and two members of the depot’s famous herd of rare white deer, all in a quarter-mile stretch of road.
Land the Army used to mow to 6 inches to keep its sightlines clear for approaching enemy is now reverting to brush and forest and attracting more wildlife. Yellow daffodils growing where farmhouses once stood splashed color on the drab spring canvas. A place once teeming with military personnel was eerily quiet back in the hands of nature.
“You just don’t see this anywhere else,” said Money, pointing out another nest of a Great Horned Owl.
There are only three known white deer in the Q Area and these two walked up to the bus doors and posed. No one was allowed to exit, but it sure beat the usual way of photographing the mystical creatures, through the fence along Route 96A.
“This is a rare photo op,” Money said.
“Do they glow in the dark?” a passenger quipped.
No, but Money was glowing.
The charismatic chairman of Seneca White Deer Inc., a decade-old grassroots group fighting to preserve the white deer and the depot’s military history, was elated by the overwhelming success of his organization’s latest round of tours.
Hopeful that they finally convince state and federal officials that creating a conservation and military park out of a portion of the depot already designated a 7,500-acre “conservation zone” would be an international tourist attraction and an economic engine.
There is growing ammunition for the cause.
In 2006, some 1,200 people took the tours with hundreds turned away. This time, more than 2,000, some from as far away as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, signed up for three weekends of tours ending May 3.
More tourist-related business for the Finger Lakes in the way of wineries, restaurants, hotels and gas stations could allow the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency, which owns the depot and supported the tours, to meet its mission of job and tax-base creation while being good land stewards.
A better idea than fee-hunting and ethanol plants. An-everybody-wins scenario.
“It shows the interest people do have,” said Money, a resident of Canandaigua. “We’ve proven our point twice.”
Money believes the tourism and open-space recreation potential of the depot is as vast as the depot itself. His magnetism has pulled together sportsmen, businessmen, educators and environmentalists as depot partners, and he is using the tours to recruit more help.
His Seneca White Deer, Inc., a small army of passionate volunteers, is the public’s David fighting government’s Goliath.
“You don’t do this for the money, we just feel it’s the right thing. I just truly believe we need to protect this unique resource,” said the retired biologist and environmental analyst for RG&E who has been behind numerous wildlife initiatives. “We think this is the best use for several thousand acres of this property, to maintain it for the public, now and for future generations. We’ve paid for it with taxpayer dollars.”
White deer intrigue
What’s so unique about the depot?
The white deer — the result of a recessive gene for white colorization manifesting itself thanks to the Army’s protection — number 200, the largest herd of its kind in the world.
Add in 600 brown deer, nesting raptors, eagles that arrived last year, waterfowl of every kind using a 60-acre pond and wetlands, about 400 turkeys, songbirds, beavers and coyotes — all in a fenced area that greatly enhances sightings — and Disney couldn’t create such a place for wildlife watching, photography and research.
Here, nature is juxtaposed with a fascinating military ghost town.
Witnessed on the tour was a cemetery from the Iroquois and white settlement of Kendaia, the prison that held 950 women arrested in the summer of 1983 during anti-nuclear protests, and “The Burning Pits” where old ordinance was exploded and the Army is still de-contaminating.
Rail lines that moved missiles now hold parked railroad cars.
Most prevalent are the emptied and abandoned munitions igloos, 519 in all, organized in long, neat rows. The 40 x 60 trapezoid-shaped structures have 2-foot thick concrete walls and held everything from bullets to bombs.
Even strategic ores were kept at Seneca. Echo Block stored the uranium used in the Manhattan Project to make the first two Atomic bombs.
The igloos were covered by 2 feet of dirt to hide them from Russian satellites and to maintain a temperature of 55 degrees that prolonged the life of gunpowder.
Money can envision people hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing down the narrow bunker roads. Camping and public hunting by a lottery system are options. The igloos could store wine and fireworks.
“Or how about a bed and bunker?” he said.
Inside the Q Area, meanwhile lay the most intrigue, its historic public access made possible by Victor-based Finger Lakes Technologies Group, which stores sensitive data here.
The highlight: Building No. 803 that’s not a building at all.
Made of solid green-painted concrete, it rests atop four subterranean steel vaults that housed the triggers that armed the first generation of atomic weapons.
“It was meant to fool the Russians,” said Money, who once worked for the former Atomic Energy Commission.
Eight buildings in the regular conservation area just off 96A where small arms were kept would be perfect to recycle into permanent tour offices, a wildlife education center, gift shop, wine tasting room and Cold War museum with plenty of room for parking.
Navy SEALS still parachute into this area for maneuvers.
Money’s group, operating out of the Varick fire hall, wants to write purchase and lease agreements as soon as it can and start habitat improvement projects since the deer are suffering weight loss due to deteriorating food sources.
While some local residents would like the depot’s fence taken down (ensuring the highly visible white deer’s demise from predation and hunters) and the land cleared for farming once more, that’s just not practical or responsible. Tourism is.
“I thought it was super, every aspect of it,” said Jeannine Clark, 73, of Penn Yan, whose dad worked as a civilian at the depot. “I’d come back.”
“The wildlife was nice but the military aspect was very interesting and informative,” said Beatrice Carmel 74, of Bloomfield, who took the tour with her husband, William, 78. “Nobody knows much about what happened here so the tours are a great idea.”
Money and his army march on, drumming the message: keep developing the east side of the depot and periphery where warehouses, businesses and housing already exist, but preserve the rest for what’s right.
“If you put your thinking caps on, oh what you could do with this place,” he said. “Nowhere else in the world has this potential.
“If we slice and dice it into commercial and industrial use, to me that would be a mortal crime.”