The Seneca Serpent: Real Or Myth?

The Seneca Serpent: Real Or Myth?

Did you know that Seneca Lake has its very own Loch-Ness-type monster?

In this episode of The History and Mysteries Of Seneca Lake, Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson and I talk about a sea serpent that was first seen in the lake in 1886. We’ll learn about the sightings people have experienced throughout the years so you can decide if this is a myth or a mystery.

Meet Gary Emerson

Gary Emerson is the current Schuyler County Historian. He was a history teacher at Newfield Central School, teaching for 36 years before retiring about 9 years ago. Going back to school to work on a Ph.D. in American History, Gary also edits and writes articles for the Schuyler County Historical Society Journal. He’s given presentations on local history, and one of his most popular talks is about is the history of sea monsters in Seneca Lake.

The Seneca Serpent has been a story most locals have heard about since they were children. Sometimes called the Loch Ness Monster, the Seneca Nessie, Seneca Serpent, and Seneca Monster, this creature may be a myth—or maybe not. Other lakes in New York State have had their own versions of a sea serpent, such as Lake Champlain’s monster named Champ.

Neighboring Cayuga Lake has also had sightings of its own monster. The two lakes are connected by canals and waterways, so some people speculate that the monsters could traveling back and forth between the lakes.

Searching The Waters

There’s verified newspaper proof that eople have claimed they’ve seen something in Seneca Lake since 1886 and Canandaigua Lake in 1891. Some describe the serpent as long as 70 feet in length. People used to go out in their boats—taking their shotguns with them—because they were afraid of running into this monster and being devoured.

However, some newspapers had a different idea about what was causing the sightings. They thought that some of these fishermen were using a little too much “liquid bait” and were just seeing or imagining things from too much alcohol.

The Seneca Serpent

People reported that they’d seen a monster in Seneca Lake—which often made newspaper headlines. In 1899, a blacksmith in Geneva was out fishing with a net. As he cast it, he kept finding holes in his net and was curious about what was making them. He would fix the net, throw it out, and find the same thing the next day.

He decided there was something big out there and he said he was going to try and catch it—spreading the news quickly that there was a strange creature lurking in Seneca Lake. Some people suspected it might be some kind of a creature that traveled inland from the ocean. Others thought it was a type of deep water fish. Either way, the blacksmith had a bunch of men try to help him.

They all showed up to see if they could help catch the sea creature. In a rowboat in the rain, the net suddenly jerked and they started shooting like crazy in the water. They had seen something, and they were all trying to pull it in. An article in the Geneva Daily Times of July 17, 1899 describes how two of the men took hold of the net at each end, slowly raising it.

The Mystery Deepens

As soon as the serpentine body of the captive appeared above the surface, five shotguns rang out. The thing was punctured from its head almost to its tail—but it simply proved to be a monster eel. Robert Williams Sellers, who was one of the parties, said it was 13 feet long. The sea monster was likely a freshwater lake eel—though an abnormally large one—with the look of a large snake. A VERY large lake snake.

However, this discovery wouldn’t put the legend to rest. In July of 1900, the steamboat Otetiani was between Dresden and Willard. On the lake at 7:00 pm, the steamboat passengers claimed that they spotted some kind of a creature. They weren’t really sure what it was, though it looked rather large.  This helped boost the whole story of the Lake Seneca Monster.

The Otetiani claimed the serpent was 25 feet long with a triangular-shaped head, long tail, and pointed shark’s teeth. Published in the Buffalo Review of July 16, 1900, the paper recounted the details. The people saw what looked like an overturned boat about 400 yards away. Thinking someone was in distress, they went over there to try to help. When they got a little closer, the object suddenly began to move away from them. That’s when they started to realize that this thing was not an overturned boat.

Chasing The Monster

When they realized there was some sort of creature in the lake, the Captain yelled “full speed ahead!” The object was moving slowly and the steamboat was gaining on it very quickly. Suddenly, the object turned, raised its head up, and looked at the boat. Reportedly, it opened its mouth, revealing double rows of sharp, white teeth like a shark.

People on board realized this was some kind of creature in a lake. The Captain decided he was going to try to ram it, kill it, and take it on board, towing it into Geneva to show people what they found. As the ship turned to approach the creature, the deck was crowded with passengers. In preparation to ram the creature,  the Captain cautioned everybody to get a life preserver and keep cool.

Apparently some of the women were in hysterics and “retired to the cabin.” Others showed as much interest and excitement as the men. As the Captain signaled full speed ahead and the Otetiani was underway, everybody on deck was watching the monster and hardly a person was breathing normally. As they got a little closer, the monster suddenly went out of sight and dove down down out of sight.

Making Contact

Some people said they could see the outline of the creature’s body from the boat as they went over it. They gave up and continued the journey to Geneva. Some time later someone shouted “there it is!” The monster reappeared, and everyone ran to the stern of the vessel. Within 50 yards, the long body of the monster was laying on the surface in practically the same position as when it was discovered.

The captain ordered the boat put about, and the attack was renewed. Instead of trying to strike the creature full on, the boat was maneuvered so that the starboard paddle wheel would strike it about midway between its head and tail. The boat went ahead under full steam, and the monster paid no attention to it. With a thud—which all heard and felt—the boat struck the mark at which it aimed.

The force of the impact threw everyone off his feet. The vessel careened violently to port but quickly righted. They then saw this thing lying along the side of the boat that appeared to be dead. It didn’t raise its head, and passengers reported that it made a gasping sound and then lay quiet. They thought that the spinal column must have been broken and the creature was dead.

Eyewitness Accounts

Men with boat hooks lowed in smaller lifeboats put ropes around the body of the creature and fastened ropes on board. They were trying to pull this thing up and haul it into the boat, but it proved to be too heavy. The rope slipped off near the tail, the tail dropped in the water, and the weight of the other rope became so great that it began to slip through the hands of those holding it.

The creature was too heavy, so they had to let it go. The dozens of people on board watched as the body sank and disappeared at a place where the lake is over 600 feet deep. It was lost in the lake, and they weren’t able to recover it. All they had were their stories and eyewitness accounts of what they saw and what happened to them.

They arrived in Geneva at about midnight, and naturally, all reported about the monster they saw. Of course, it became kind of a fish story because the length kept going from 25 feet to 50 feet. However, there was a person on board who was a geologist, Professor G. R. Ellwood.

Identifying The Sea Serpent

Professor Ellwood was on one of the lifeboats that made a rope around the creature. Since he was a professor, people felt that he should be someone credible and believable. Interestingly, he had a name for this creature: Clidastes, a type of dinosaur.

According to Professor Ellwood, the Clidastes was about 25 feet long with a long, tapered tail with an end that looked like a whale’s tail. The creature, he said, probably weighed about 1,000 pounds. Its head was about four feet long and triangular in shape. Its mouth was very long with two rows of triangular white teeth in the shape of a sperm whale.

Its body was covered with a horny substance, which was as much like the “carapace of a terrapin.” The horny substance was brown in color with a greenish tinge. The belly of the creature, which Professor Ellwood saw after the rope slipped and the carcass was going down, was cream white, and its eyes were round like a fish.

Skeptics Weight In

The Seneca Serpent is a strange-sounding creature that was quite a mystery for these people. After this incident happened, some people were skeptical. The Rochester Herald poo-pooed this whole story. They thought it was just a fake story that Geneva was making up to get people to come there and get more people to visit their city.

The paper said it was just a storyteller who made up a yarn about a 13-foot-long snake. They believed it was just something people made up out of their imagination and wasn’t really true at all. However, this is a pretty interesting story that lends credence to the story that there was something in Seneca Lake. With so many eyewitnesses, how could there not be some truth to it?

We’ll probably never know for certain, but there was something pretty large in the water to knock the boat off-kilter as it did. But if you’re not convinced, stay tuned for Part Two as we explore more of this mystery!

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