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November 12, 2012

Deposit became civil defense evacuation zone in 1957 test

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The Daily Star

---- — The village of Deposit, which is split between Delaware and Broome counties, had about 2,000 residents back in May 1957. On Sunday, May 5, the village almost doubled in population. The visitors were expected, although the theme of their arrival was a bit sobering. It was for a mass evacuation of nearby Binghamton residents, as a history-making exercise in civil defense.

It was called “Evac-12,” as 1,448 men, women and children departed Binghamton’s 12th Ward, on the city’s east side. The Binghamton Press reported, “Future planning for America’s survival against the H-bomb will hinge on the success or failure of the test. It will be the first mass evacuation test of such magnitude in the nation.”

Some of Oneonta and Otsego County were observers and participants in the exercise. An Oneonta Star reporter was present, as were James Georgeson, then a state civil defense field representative and future Oneonta mayor; Bert Lowe of Schenevus; Otsego County civil defense director; and Oneonta city cvil defense Director John Eggleston.

An air raid siren sounded in Binghamton at 1:15 p.m., and residents knew what they had to do, as about a year of planning, training and testing had been invested for this survival exercise. Civil defense wardens arrived and controlled the evacuation.

At 1:30, the first of about 500 people emulating panic left their homes and climbed into about 120 automobiles. Others weren’t displaying panic, as planned, got into automobiles, and all began their 28-mile trip along state Route 17. Nearly 110 people boarded an Erie-Lackawanna passenger train, which served as a traveling hospital for patients. School buses were also deployed. Had this been a real attack, Deposit would’ve been expected to handle upward of 10,500 people.

According to the Star, when people arrived in Deposit, “The modern high school served as general headquarters, where medical treatment, food and other services were available.” To add some realism to the arrival, those not “injured or dead” were directed by civil defense wardens to many homes that had opened their doors to the evacuees.

“For instance,” the Star said, “a mother and father and their five lively, towheaded children moved into the three-bedroom home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Gruscavage and their two children.”

“Mrs. Gruscavage, wife of a driver for a dairy, greeted the tribe of Mr. and Mrs. George Frailey with a smile.”

The Press reported, “The acting governor of New York, a Democrat, set up emergency executive headquarters…in the home of the village attorney of Deposit, a Republican.”

“Arriving in Deposit like the other evacuees, Lt. Gov. George B. DeLuca, the state’s chief executive in the absence of Governor Averill Harriman, went to the home of J. Leland Rickard,” of Wheeler Street. The cellar became the headquarters, a shelter against assumed radioactive fallout.

For that day, this was all a rehearsal. As the day’s exercise wound down: “A hot meal of chicken and biscuits, coffee and doughnuts was served in the school to about 3,000 evacuees, civil defense personnel and observers. After eating, the evacuees set out for home.”

Raoul Archambault, executive assistant for the federal civil defense administration, said afterward the exercise would be “cited across the land as a demonstration of the type of thing that can be done. It refutes the talk of apathy to civil defense in America.”

The Rev. Vardell Swett, pastor of Binghamton’s East Side Congregational Church and civil defense chaplain, was on board the hospital train, and some of the passengers were children, likely on their first train ride.

Swett nodded his head toward some kids, glued to the window, staring at the green countryside and told a reporter, “Let’s pray that it’s always this wonderful, and never more serious than this, for them.”

Coming this weekend: Giving thanks for electric lights.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com.