Posted by: Loren Coleman on October 21st, 2007
That is one of several questions raised by Chad Lewis in “Hidden Headlines of New York: Strange, Unusual and Bizarre Newspaper Stories of 1860-1910.”
Among the strange tales Lewis amassed about the Empire State is that of two fishermen who reported seeing a large serpent-like creature in Owasco Lake on July 7, 1889.
Fred C. Hayden and James O. Thomas noticed a dark form in the water at Buck Point, on the south end of the lake, that they initially thought was a tree trunk. As they approached it in their boat from a few yards away, they saw the form move in the waves of the lake before disappearing under the water.
“Several others whose veracity is not usually questioned claim to have seen the serpent,” it read in the July 8, 1889 Syracuse Post-Standard article.
Almost 10 years later, lakeside residents once again confronted the possibility that a prehistoric beast was lurking in Owasco Lake. During her research, Owasco Town Historian Laurel Auchampaugh discovered a May 28, 1897 article in the Auburn Daily Advertiser – taken from the Moravia Republican – that describes another encounter between two fishermen and the elusive form in the water.
The men, whose identities were withheld, described a shape that looked like an “immense log” three to four feet in diameter and more than 50 feet long. As they came closer to it, the men’s boat was nearly capsized by a “fearful splashing” near the middle of the massive object.
“They refrained from telling this occurrence, knowing that such a story would not be believed,” the article stated.
But belief in the sea serpent was far more than folie a deux. A week prior to the fishermen’s sighting, an Owasco farmer traveling to Auburn spotted the monster early one morning near the east shore.
That same week, two men reported seeing the monster “lay on the surface of the water” between Cascade and Indian Cove. As they closed in on the creature, it “glided down the lake at great speed.”
Depending on who you talked to at the time, the serpent measured somewhere between six and 100 feet in length. The hysteria reached its height when a Cascade landlord named Baker offered a $100 reward for the sea beast’s capture.
Like the Loch Ness monster myth that surrounds that Scottish lake, there is little to no scientific basis for the idea of an ancient sea beast inhabiting Owasco Lake. And there is even less evidence than the grainy photographs supporting the existence of Nessie.
Marion Balyszak, director of the Finger Lakes Institute, which tests and analyzes bodies of water in central New York, has heard no recent stories of the alleged sea serpent in Owasco Lake.
However, similar reports by boaters of strange creatures in Seneca Lake has led Balyszak to attribute such sightings to sturgeons, an old and large species of fresh water fish that can stretch up to 15 feet in length.
“They can look prehistoric-like,” she said.
The other Auburn tale Lewis dug up to feature in “Hidden Headlines” is hardly unexplainable, but still quite strange. “Born, Died and Buried on the Same Day” recounts the simultaneous birth and death of neighbors Hugh D. Crawford and Mrs. John Dates. The 1907 tale is part of the book’s selection of oddity stories.
“It runs the whole gamut of weird stories,” he said.
The New York book follows similar compilations of weird stories in Texas and Lewis’ native Wisconsin that Lewis also put together. He chose to feature New York due to the prevalence of peculiar wire stories featured in the Wisconsin newspaper archives. Lewis made it a point to focus on the entire state.
“So many books focus on New York City or the big cities, but that’s not where all the weird stuff was going on,” he said.
The tales of the sea serpent in Owasco Lake and the neighbors with identical life spans are presented as they were written in the newspaper a century ago.
“I leave it up to the person to determine whether or not they believe what they read,” Lewis said. “That’s half the fun of the book.”
“Monster in the Lake” by David Wilcox
The Citizen, Auburn, NY
Sunday, October 21, 2007.
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