by Ray Levato
Many people would agree that Seneca Lake is one of the most beautiful of the 11 Finger Lakes. Some people know it is the largest and deepest – and second-longest after Cayuga. But unless you live in or around Dresden in Yates County, population 308, you may not know that Seneca Lake plays an important role in our national defense. The U.S. Navy tests the sonars used on America’s nuclear submarines on Seneca Lake.
The Seneca Lake sonar test facility, a small U.S. Navy installation on the west shore, is a part of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division (NUWC) Newport, Rhode Island. The facility was a marina until about 1962 when the Navy tests began.
Why Seneca Lake? There are many reasons.
First, “Seneca has the isothermic characteristics [constant temperature] that make it an ideal acoustic environment to test sonar,” explains Frank McNeilly, NUWC Newport’s waterfront operations manager. Its maximum depth of 618 feet also plays a role. “Higher pressure at deeper levels closely simulates an ocean environment,” he adds.
In addition, the lake is an ideal quiet environment; quieter than the open ocean so it allows for more accurate testing. It also simulates a more realistic environment for submarines, and is less costly than testing at sea, “especially in winter when the water temp is uniform top to bottom,” McNeilly explains. In more scientific terms, Seneca Lake is the Navy’s primary active instrumented calibration and test facility.
Two large test barges are located about 1.3 miles from the western shore. The Navy says it’s a world-class testing facility known for its massive lift and power capabilities. There’s a 200-ton-capacity crane to lower and raise equipment “so we can test full hull or bow sonar arrays. This is unique to Dresden,” says McNeill.
Sonar arrays are not small. Some may look like a big ball; bigger than a one-car garage. Sometimes, the testing interrupts recreational boating. “It’s a big lake but on occasion we might have to limit activity around the barge or another part of the lake where we are testing, including for safety reasons for the boating public.”
The facility at Dresden is staffed by about a dozen government and civilian contractors. It is not open to the public. Interestingly, the work they do there is not top secret, but much of it is classified.
William “Bill” Hall, Dresden’s mayor, grew up on a farm a mile from the lake. “People in the village are so accustomed to it, and it’s been there so long that nobody really pays any attention to it. You really wouldn’t even know it’s there – it’s so quiet.”
Former village historian Raymond Welker, who was born and raised in Dresden, worked in the office of the test facility for 30 years. He’s glad it’s there, aside from the fact that he’s asked on occasion, “What the heck is that barge out there in the middle of the lake?”
“It’s been a godsend; a very valuable asset,” asserts Welker. “It has done a lot of good for the people here by supporting the local economy.”
The U.S. Navy has had a long history on Seneca Lake, dating back to 1942 when the Sampson Naval Training Base opened at the northern end. More than 400,000 new sailors shipped out from there for service in World War II. The former Seneca Army Depot, located between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, opened for munitions storage at about the same time.
During the Korean War, Sampson became an Air Force training base. By the time it closed in 1956, it had hosted 300,000-plus Air Force recruits. Today, it’s the site of Sampson State Park.
Another plus for Seneca Lake is the 12-mile-long Cayuga-Seneca Canal that links both lakes to the Erie Canal. The canal locks can accommodate barges up to 40 feet wide and 200 feet long, so large test items or systems can be brought to Dresden from the Atlantic Ocean or the Great Lakes.
The Naval Undersea Warfare Center’s contribution cannot be overstated.
The NUWC Division Newport is primarily a civilian organization with about 3,300 federal employees, 2,500 contractors, and 30 military personnel at any given time. “Except for the hull and nuclear propulsion system, everything else on a sub is us,” says spokesman John Woodhouse. The sonar array for the USS Buffalo – a Los Angeles class nuclear fast-attack submarine – was tested at Dresden. Launched in 1982, the USS Buffalo was scheduled for inactivation and decommissioning in 2017.
In the larger context, the NUWC also does research to support nearly all undersea warfare systems in the fleet.
Dresden no longer has a grocery store or a gas station, says Welker, but with the continuing service of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, tiny Dresden and Seneca Lake plays an important role in our national defense.
Short for SOund Navigation And Ranging, sonar detects objects by using sound waves – they travel farther in water than do radar and light waves. Sonar was first used in World War I to detect submarines.
NUWC Division Newport
It is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, the Navy’s full-spectrum research, development, test and evaluation, engineering, and fleet support center for submarine warfare systems and many other systems associated with the undersea battlespace. NUWC Division Newport provides the technical foundation that ensures our Navy’s undersea superiority.
Ray Levato is a retired reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester, NY)