Deer Haven Park, LLC is one of the most unique tourist attractions Seneca County has to offer to visitors and locals. It combines a rich, interesting history with a present-day nature reserve. While it's referred to as a wildlife preserve now, it originally started as the Seneca Army Depot. That is of course, after the government purchased the land from local families, many of which felt pushed out and given no choice. Today the land is open for guided tours from the safety of a vehicle or wagon.
The beginning: The Seneca Army Depot in the Finger Lakes Region
The land that Deer Haven currently sits on once belonged to local families. Hundreds of people owned houses and farms on that land. This was after many of the residents had gotten married and started raising their families there. When World War II began, it became clear the United States may have to take part in it. The U.S. government spent time looking for land in New York where they could create some sort of weapons storage military operation and landed on the land in Romulus, NY that would soon become the Seneca Army Depot. Many families didn't want to move, but letters were sent that forced them off of the land. They were offered compensation for the land, and some felt it was fair and others felt it wasn't enough. At the end of it all, in 1941 the military began building on the land once everyone had been removed.
The military built a number of weapons storage igloos that were constructed in a way that would allow any sort of explosion to go upward instead of outward toward the other igloos. The shale below the surface of the soil was ideal because it could absorb much of the shock created if an explosion happened.
This land was selected for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was thanks to the railroad tracks that ran on both sides of the depot. This allowed for easy transport of weapons to either come to the depot or be sent out of the depot. Today, the platforms along the train tracks that were used for delivery can still be seen.
3,000 workers were contracted to help build the military operation in a matter of months. At one point that number grew to more than 8,000. Many people traveled from as far as Rochester and Syracuse to find work, some even traveled from other parts of the country. So many people were there to work, hotels and spare rooms in local residents houses were completely filled. This caused thousands of workers to stay in tents or even outdoors. So many people in one place started to ruin the local water supply because the sewage became too much. The government was forced to step in and set up a community of trailers for workers to stay in, help clean up the water supply, and provide nurses for children.
All of the igloos used for weapons storage are still standing today, but in 1995 the upkeep of the land ended, allowing nature to reclaim its territory. From 1941 when the depot was built until just before its closure in 2000, the land had been mowed and kept maintained.
Pictured above are two photographs of buildings used to store weapons on the Seneca Army Depot from the 1940s until its closure in 2000.
The Army depot was rumored to have housed not just any weapons, but nuclear weapons. The civilians who worked on the base were under the impression that the base just stored weapons and detonated "bad" weapons. Of course, nobody spoke about their secret roles or positions on the base, so while it's well known there were nuclear weapons on base, it wasn't confirmed or denied by the military when asked, spiking protests on the depot in the 1980s.
Many individuals were able to figure it out because while it wasn't explicitly shared there were nuclear weapons on site, job descriptions, tasks, and other documents that were public had words within them that described or outright named nuclear weapons as being part of the operation.
Throughout the base there are various structures from the past, including little bunkers or fallout shelters for people to hide in if there was ever an explosion or an attack, old foundations from the homes of those forced to leave the land, old buildings that were holding loose gun powder, and remnants of Area Q.
Pictured above: A small bunker in the middle of the woods for coverage in an explosion or attack; old foundation from a home that belonged to a family forced to leave the land.
Pictured above: A ceramic building constructed to house loose gunpowder; a list of rules to follow while handling and storing explosives
This area was the most secured area on the campus, and even today the tours don't go all the way into the area. Back then military personnel in that area needed to be in pairs, and if someone was spotted in the area alone, security was required to shoot them on sight. Their rule of thumb was to shoot first and ask questions later. It is believed that Area Q housed the most dangerous nuclear weapons on the depot, and nobody else who worked on the depot was fully aware of what others job descriptions were in that area. Cameras and fences were set up all around the perimeter to keep unauthorized personnel out. Today, a pond has been created for wildlife to enjoy near Area Q.
Pictured above: Barbed wire fencing with large, bullet proof lights and a camera on a telephone pole overlooks the edge of Area Q, where the depot's most dangerous nuclear weapons were once stored; an old, faded sign warning people of the consequences of choosing to attempt to enter the base still hangs on the old, rusted fencing at the edge of Area Q.
Present Day: Deer Haven Park, LLC tours
Today, the depot is no longer a military operation. All the structures are either still standing, or in disrepair, but almost everything is the way it was when the depot closed down in 2000.
While some of the buildings have at times been used for other businesses, they remain under private ownership today and Deer Haven Park, LLC has taken over.
The tours are available in many different ways, including in the privacy of your own car as you drive yourself through the depot to look at the old buildings while listening to an app that gives you the history behind each stop. You can also book private tours on their bus, or take tours on their wagon!
This year they'll offer some other types of tours like a walking tour and tours during their fall festival. You can learn more about that by visiting their website.
Depending on the type of tour you choose to book, there may be some that allow you to actually look inside of the igloos or bunkers and see what it was like for yourself. Photos are allowed on these tours.
Aside from learning about and seeing the history the depot has to offer, wildlife is abundant throughout the park.
The wildlife in Deer Haven Park
The wildlife throughout Deer Haven includes many different animals. Since the maintenance of the grounds ended in 1995, the depot has had nearly 30 years to grow trees, plants, bushes, and deep wooded areas for families of deer to live in. The deer are able to come and go as they please, and they'll often snack on apples or other crops while outside the depot. When they return, their waste has seeds that have grown patches of corn, apple trees, and other types of foods that weren't originally on the depot.
Not only are there deer to spot, but Deer Haven is home of one of the largest herds of white deer in the U.S. and people often try to catch a glimpse of them while visiting. These deer are rare and their genetics cause them to be white tailed with white coats. The park has bald eagles, that have made their large nests close enough to the roads people tour on so that they're able to see them. Closer to the exit is a beaver dam in a marsh that has a bridge and grassy path to view it depending on the tour you choose. Sometimes the dam gets so large the road can flood, requiring workers to cut some of the blockage out of the dam.
Pictured above: Marsh area with high waters due to the beaver dam in the water
Upcoming events at Deer Haven:
- Fall Festival 9/30/23: From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. vendor booths will be open. $15 wagon and bus tours are running from 10:30 a.m. through 5 p.m. on a first come first serve basis. There will be a petting zoo, craft vendors, raffles, door prizes, military vehicles, a live civil war campsite re-enactment, and a book signing with "Beyond the Fence" author Dee Calvasina from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
- Walking Tour 9/14/23: This is a one time two hour walking tour that lasts 1.5 miles in Deer Haven Park. From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. walk deep within the park and look inside the ceramic storage building for the first time, see a family home foundation, visit the entrance to Area Q and check out the beaver dam.
- "Total Eclipse of the Park" 4/8/24: Book your visit to Deer Haven on the day of the total solar eclipse where you can watch the full eclipse in the quiet of nature. Get your own safety glasses and purchase refreshments while waiting to see the eclipse after the included mini tour of the park.