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The beautiful ghost deer of New York are a sight to see. And now you can, thanks to years of work and the Seneca Army Depot tours. These Seneca white deer, along with brown deer, eagles, and other wildlife are on display at this site in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Plan to spend the weekend and book a room at the nearby Belhurst Castle.
The Myth and Mystery of the Seneca White Deer
In 2011, when I was writing my book, Myths and Mysteries of New York, I was working on a chapter about the legendary “haunted” Buckout Road in Harrison, New York. A tribe of Native American Indians known as the Siwanoy originally inhabited that area. The Siwanoy tribe believed that during the full moon a beautiful Great White Deer visited Buckout Road, and it would bring good fortune to all that laid eyes upon it. Native Indians also referred to it as the Ghost Deer. They would travel from hundreds of miles away between 1805 to 1866 to catch a glimpse of this deer.
Since all legends start from some basis of truth, I began researching. I stumbled upon the fact that while white deer no longer reside in Westchester, New York, (after all, rents are very high there), there is a herd of white deer hiding out in the abandoned Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, New York. (That’s near Seneca Falls. Yes, the same Seneca Falls where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement began. It wasn’t until 1920 with much effort we got the right to vote – good thing for all us traveling moms!)
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Determination must run rampant in that area. Like those women who were determined to get the vote, a non-profit group in the Finger Lakes region of New York was equally determined to protect the Seneca white deer.
How The Seneca Army Depot Helps
The Seneca Army Depot tours are one way they do that. The money is used to stock the land with deer feed. They also fenced off a section to create a deer haven and protect them from being hunted. Only problem: The government still owned the land. The army depot was closed, but the government wasn’t willing to sell. Thus, no public access.
Hearing this, I became determined that one day I would see these deer up close and personal.
Finally, I Get to See the Seneca White Deer
Then it happened! In September of 2017, after 6 years of being on the newsletter list, I received notice that after 20 years of hard work, (and 70 years of isolation of the deer), The Seneca White Deer Organization did it! A private investor bought the 7,000 acres from the government and the new owner granted the white deer organization the right to do tours, and thus enable the public access to get a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.
I ran to my husband who was lying on the couch.
A Drive to The Finger Lakes
“Steve, I want to drive up to Seneca Falls, near the Finger Lakes, to view white deer. For only thirty bucks (and I’m not talking male deer here) you can get on this 25-passenger bus, take a 90-minute tour with a guide who used to work on the former Seneca Army Depot. You get to go inside the fenced off area, see the other wildlife, go inside a bomb shelter, and see the storage units where they kept war supplies from World War II, the Manhattan Project and other wars. Plus, I looked it up and there is this Belhurst castle in Geneva overlooking the lake, that we can stay at, eat a really cool dinner and get a 50-minute couples massage in the spa. I think we should ask (my son) Spencer and (his girlfriend) Heather to go!”
Steve just stared at me like a deer in the headlights. Then he calmly said, “And when do you want to do this?”
“This weekend would be nice. The tours just started and they are selling out fast. I want to be one of the first to go, just in case the government changes their mind and closes them down.”
Steve smirked, “Capoooo! Okay I’ll treat everyone, but you’ll owe me!”
Visiting Belhurst Castle
Everything went off without a hitch. We left our New York home at 9am Saturday morning, got there at 2PM, ate lunch in the castle and did our couples massage.
(Side note, this was the first time in my life I had a male masseuse. I was very shy about it and Steve was laughing hysterically. I talked through half the massage because I didn’t feel comfortable, so I kept my underwear on.)
Anyway, after that we gorged on a fabulous dinner at the castle, took some pictures with the knights and watched the self-playing piano. I was thrilled they had a lot of gluten free options. (By the way, we had this fantastic waitress named Cecelia, an older woman, friendly, attentive, funny and sounded a little like Lily Tomlin.)
Unfortunately, the castle rooms were sold out, so we booked a room at the nearby Fairfield Marriott. It had a heated pool and tons of stores nearby. There was even an Urgent Care across the street, just in case a deer goes rogue and wants to kill ya for being paparazzi.
Sunday morning we drove the 20 minutes to the Seneca Army Depot. I used the GPS address they gave me of 5537 NYS Route 96A Romulus, NY because the tours are so new they don’t even have a real address yet! They said it would take us right next to the office and it did.
I booked the 10 am tour, because 8 a.m. especially in the cold weather, was not my idea of fun.
Belhurst Castle Welcome Center
At the Welcome Center, we had to sign waivers, (you never know when a deer might attack you), were given a 2-page pamphlet on the tour, looked at the hundreds of newspaper articles about the depot and saw gorgeous pictures of the white deer. Since this place is new they had only a few gift items, but I’m sure over time they will stock more.
The Seneca Army Depot Tours
When all guests were accounted for we boarded the bus and proceeded to a gate that led into the Deer Haven Park. We passed some newly planted apple trees surrounded by mini fences. These are meant to feed the deer and to train them to come out from the bushes so the tourists can see them. After all, this isn’t Disney. The deer don’t come out on command. Besides, they don’t know the bus schedule yet.
“Folks we are hoping to see the White Deer, please keep your eyes opened and shout out if you see some, so we can stop and take pictures. By the way, these are NOT albino deer. Albino deer, which are very rare, have pink eyes and they lack total pigmentation. These deer mate with brown tailed deer and have brown eyes. There are also some white deer on protected land in Ireland, but their herd is not as large.
“Deer by the way are measured in half years, like 1, 1½, 2, 2½. Their gestation period is 7½ months.”
We Found Them!
We rode in silence for a few minutes and then someone shouted, “DEER ON THE LEFT!” The bus came to a quick quiet halt and everyone was leaning over to snap pictures out the bus windows of these beautiful creatures.
After another 10 minutes, another sharp-eyed bus patron yelled, “Herd on the right.” We yelled for the bus driver to stop, he opened the doors and we were able to stand outside and snap pictures of the group. You have to be quick. These deer are not walking the red carpet, but merely living their everyday lives. With a bunch of pictures, I was now satisfied that I had fulfilled my dream of seeing them and also that my gang would not say that it was a wasted trip.
History of the Seneca White Deer
As the Seneca Army Depot Tours leaflet explains: In 1941 the US Army built a 24-mile fence to enclose the Seneca Army Depot which housed ammunitions from WWI, WW2 and the Manhattan Project. Some claim even nuclear war heads were stored here. But either way, bullet proof lights, security cameras, IEDs, grenade practicing throwing fields, bomb shelters were all in this area.
When the initial fence was built, unbeknownst to the soldiers several of those white deer were caught inside. With no natural predators, the herd grew. It wasn’t until 1949 that the first white deer, (a white buck and white fawn) were spotted.
Depot Commander Colonel Franklin Kemble Jr. gave orders for the soldiers to protect and not to kill the white deer. So the herd continued to grow. At one point there were 200 white deer and about 600 brown deer, but the population of both have dwindled down to a mere 85 white deer since the post was abandoned.
The Future of Seneca White Deer
The future of the deer growth depends on the success of Deer Haven Park, and the food they have planted there. (Unfortunately, the white deer are only protected from being hunted for 5 years. Totally ridiculous if you ask me. Why build up the herd just to hunt them down again? Plus really how much of a challenge is it to hunt a white deer against a green backdrop! But I digress–on purpose!)
Anyway, after 60 years as a storage area and training ground, the Army closed the depot in 2000 and it was taken over by the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency.
For years, private hands tried to take control of it to protect the deer. The 7,000 acres have been transferred and Deer Haven Park was established. It was the new owner who planted apple trees and other goodies for the White Deer to feast on. Of course, the brown deer, wild turkeys, eagles, beavers and other animals enjoy the buffet as well
We saw a really cool eagles’ nest. We were told that once the eagles start mating, the bus will detour out of its way so as not to disturb their mating habits. Don’t we all all like privacy in that area?
So exactly what was stored at the Depot?
There are 519 earth covered igloos that housed the ammunition, explosives and other materials that were stored there for WW II, Korean War, Vietnam war and the first Desert Storm war in 1990…over 35,000 tons in all.
Troops stationed there had to constantly be on the lookout for spies and enemy activity that could bomb the Depot. The whole town was alerted what to do in case of an enemy attack.
We were told that decontamination efforts continue on the NW corner of the site. That portion will remain the property of the US Army until it is considered environmentally safe. (And let’s not forget, we don’t want to be blown up during a tour!)
Seneca Army Depot Bomb Shelter
We drove past the practice grenade range, (where they threw the grenades like Sunday baseball practice) and got to walk through the personnel bomb shelters, (which I thought would be a lot bigger, but hey any cover is cover as long as you come out alive.)
Why is there a cemetery on the land?
We passed by the Kendaia Baptist cemetery. It was originally a Seneca Indian Village site that was destroyed during the Revolutionary war 1788-89. After the war, several soldiers remembered the area and returned to resettle the village.
Another 150 years passed before the military began using it as a Naval training base, and the village was once again destroyed. There are 800 graves there, with at least 4 soldiers from the Revolutionary War. The rest are from the Spanish War, WWI, WW2 and Desert Storm.
Families of those buried in that cemetery are allowed to visit only once a year. The women of the First Baptist Church voluntarily maintain it. (God Bless you women!)
After the cemetery we headed back as the tour concluded still searching for one last glimpse of deer. The gates closed behind us and our tour was over
As we drove home, I was very happy to have fulfilled another dream of seeing of one of God’s beautiful creatures, and said a silent prayer that they are around a long time for all to see, and don’t just become White Ghosts of the past.
Seneca Army Depot Tour Info
The tours are done by Seneca White Deer Inc, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the unique wildlife and military history of the former Army Depot. Tell them Fran sent you.