The Seneca Serpent: Part 2

The Seneca Serpent: Part 2

Did you know that documented sightings of the Seneca Lake serpent go back to the 1800s?

They probably go back even further than that, but we only have newspaper archives to reference.

In this episode of The History and Mysteries of Seneca Lake, we’re going to explore part two of our investigation into the sea creature — or creatures, plural — that some say lives below Seneca Lake waters. Historian Gary Emerson and I explore more accounts of sea serpent sightings as we dive deeper into the mystery of this secretive beast.

Sea Monster Stories

Our story of the Seneca Lake sea monster continues with Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson. Out of the 11 Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake is the deepest, the largest by water volume, and the most mysterious.  There have been a lot of stories about a sea monster, a sea serpent, or Loch-Ness-type sightings in the lake over the years—and not just one, but many.

While we have newspaper evidence of these encounters, there were Native American legends before that. These told of sea monsters and believed that Seneca Lake was bottomless. Today, we’re going to hear more of these accounts in detail as we explore this myth further.

A 1913 Sighting

After the incident with the Otetiani in 1900, there were other sightings that happened throughout the 20th century. In 1913, two Elmira people said they saw this monster in a lake near Glenora and watched it for a while. Glenora is located on the west side of Seneca Lake, north of Watkins Glen.

The newspaper article notes that the Seneca Lake sea serpent story that “has recurred annually or more often for the last generation finally is verified by well-known Elmira campers along the lake.” Emil Schaple and his daughter, Mrs. Henry Elliot, “watched for fully 10 or 15 minutes through a powerful opera glass.”

“They were within 250 feet of it at Mr. Schaple’s cottage. It was daylight and both were awake and know what they are talking about.” While humorous to us know, this last night was trying to tell the readers that both of them were sober.

More Than A Hoax

In 1914, a newspaper article in the Watkins Express reported another intriguing sighting. “The Seneca Lake’s sea serpent, at first believed to be a newspaper hoax, next the product of the vivid imagination of the persons who it was alleged had been seeing things, but for the past year or so accepted as being in existence, has been seen again, this time at this end of the lake.”

A man named John Roe, armed with a 38 revolver, went back to the point where the animal had been seen. After watching for a half hour, nothing happened—until the serpent suddenly appeared within a few feet of the boat, its head out of the water. “Mr. McConnell fired twice and the animal disappeared in a swirl of water and did not appear again.”

The serpent was described as being “about 10 feet long and 7-8 inches through, with a head of about the size of a man’s. On top of the beast’s head was a quantity of hair which stuck straight up. The animal was snake-like in appearance and black in color.” This is an unusual description because of the hair; most have never heard of a sea serpent with hair on its head.

Giant Mud Puppies?

Some years later in 1936, an article in the Geneva Times newspaper tried to discredit previous tales of a lake monster. They said that the sea serpent stories were all nonsense; in fact, what had really been caught was something called a “mud puppy.”

Gary has seen mud puppies in the lake, which is actually a species of salamander. However, the ones he’s spotted are quite small—closer to the size of a baby fish. It’s extremely unlikely they could get to 10 feet long.

Fresh Sightings

The Geneva Times reported a new sighting on March 9, 1956. “Frank Mills, who lives in the town of Milo, Yates County, took his first train ride to Geneva recently and reports that he plainly saw the renowned Seneca Lake sea serpent swimming in the lake just off Glass Factory Bay,” the article stated. This area is near Geneva on the west side of the lake.

Another article in 1968 reported that the “old Seneca Lake Monster has been active again.” A water skier was in the lake and said that they were being chased by the Seneca Lake Monster and were really scared by it. The swimmer said it was as long as the boat, though the writer of the article hoped that “someone catches one of these big sturgeons and proves that there is no monster or one-man submarine in the lake.”

While seemingly skeptical of the legend, the writer also noted that though there are some pretty large carp in the lake, but neither carp nor sturgeon have ever been known to attack a human being.

Practical Jokers

While some sightings were questioned and others believed, one incident involved an elaborate prank. In 1929, the Elmira Star Gazette published an article entitled, “Seneca Lake ‘Sea Serpent,’ Terror To Cottagers, Is Laid Low At Last.”

In this article, Seneca Lake’s sea serpent is described as having “protruding horns, five-foot neck, and menacing jaws.” It described that the serpent, who had “frightened lovely fishermen and alarmed cottagers for nearly a fortnight by occasional distant appearances, has been laid low.” Ludwig Berg Jr., a local meat dealer, had reported seeing “the ponderous head and waving horns at close range.” He then organized a group of residents to hunt for the creature.

“Tuesday near Kashong,” the article relates, “a distant glimpse of the monster, some careful stalking, and a fusillade of shots from the fleet of boats ended the reign of terror.” However, what the hunting party found was unexpected. “A large oil drum, carefully balanced to permit a bobbing motion, with two wooden horns and a ferociously-painted face met the pursuers who raced to the scene of the ‘kill’ to administer the coup de grace.

“Gulls attracted by the strange object added to the illusion carefully planned by some practical joker.” In this case, somebody played a joke, which did fool some people for a while. There’s a photo of some boys from Hector who may have been behind the prank, standing next to their oil drum with a painted face and attached horns.

Diving For The Truth

Some people were determined to find out if the Seneca Lake serpent was real. In 1939, an article from the Elmira Star Gazette displayed the photo of a youth from Elmira who had created a diving helmet. He went out into the lake to try and solve some of the mysteries of Seneca Lake—specifically the myth of the underwater monster.  he was going to try and solve the mystery of the monster then also the source of the Seneca Lake guns which is another story about the lake I plan to cover later.

The amateur diver, Dan Lewis, went diving and looked around but didn’t really find anything. While it was a fruitless search, the legend lived on.

Spotting The Serpent

One of the most interesting pieces of evidence for a Seneca Serpent is video footage from the early 1980s. While the camera is a bit unsteady from zooming in, something black in the waters of the lake is clearly seen. It appears to be swimming right underneath the surface, with something that looks like a head sticking up out of the water.

Sightings like this have been happening from as early as 1829, with people claiming they saw monsters in the lakes. The New York Spectator of 1829 reported a monster sighting in Lake Ontario. It details how some children between the ages of 12 and 14 saw an enormous water snake that was absolutely huge. From their account, it was 20 or 30 feet in length with a head of 10 or 15 inches in diameter.

While the serpent reported in this article was spotted in Lake Ontario, many theorize that the canal system could allow a sea serpent to travel into the Finger Lakes. Some say that there may even be subterranean passageways or channels that connect the Finger Lakes to the ocean—which is where these mysterious creatures might be coming from.

The Ontario Serpent

The 1829 spotting of the “Ontario Serpent” wasn’t the only one. In 1867,  the Rochester Express reported on a serpent people said they had spotted it in the lake. It says that “five men in a boat saw the Ontario serpent, with its head elevated ‘several feet above the water,’ and its ‘huge form entirely visible near the surface.’”

“It plunged as they rowed for it,” the article continues, “and disappeared; but it ‘resembled, as it lay on the water, the liberty pole’ of Big Sodus.” Apparently, this serpent was quite large. This monster sighting—along with others—is part of what made people think something similar could exist in the Finger Lakes.

Just A Sturgeon?

While the mystery has eluded conclusive proof, some people think the Seneca Serpent is sturgeon. Because these fish can grow very large, it’s easy to see why someone might see a sturgeon in the water and believe that there’s a monster in the lake. Sturgeon can easily reach 16 feet long, though giant sturgeon have been reported in other areas.

Additionally, sturgeon could get into the Finger Lakes through the canal system which connects Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Finger Lakes with many channels. Something large like a sturgeon could easily move around these channels and canals.

We also previously mentioned a subterranean connection with the ocean. Interestingly, there’s an article that mentions that “a number of erroneous beliefs are held regarding Seneca, a common one being that the lake is connected by a subterranean cavern with the ocean, probably arising from the fact that a large area of the lake is below sea level.” Mr. Wardell, quoted in the article, said, “the fairy tale the Seneca Lake sea serpent, probably, arises from this belief in a subterranean connection with the ocean.”

An Enduring Mystery

As you can see, there have been plenty of serpent sightings in Seneca Lake and nearby waters for many years. Interestingly, there have even been some recent sightings as well. People have claimed they’ve seen something odd in the lake and they didn’t know what it was. Whenever that happens, the speculation about the Seneca Lake monster always experiences a resurgence.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of The History and Mysteries of Seneca Lake with Schuyler County Historian Gary Emerson. Be sure to subscribe to the channel for more stories and the many fascinating mysteries and interesting history of Seneca Lake. Stay tuned to see what I feature next!

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