The Monster of California’s Lake Elsinore

It sometimes seems that wherever there is a lake of any significant size, stories of strange beasts lurking in the depths are not far behind. For whatever reasons, tales of bizarre creatures cruising through the water gravitate to these places, and while it certainly may seem that this is fitting for remote lakes far from the eyes of humankind, the fact is that this seems to not always have a bearing on a lake’s potential for monster reports. Indeed, there are lakes that are in highly populated areas that seem to have monsters every bit as odd and baffling as those purported to lurk in the more isolated areas of the world, and indeed even more so. These cases can be particularly perplexing, and it often seems ludicrous that any large creature could possibly remain hidden here, or that it could even be there in the first place. One such lake monster comes to us from California’s Lake Elsinore, and it is a strange look into an alleged lake cryptid which, all things considered, simply should not be there.

Lying in California’s Riverside County, just east of the Santa Ana Mountains and at the terminus of the San Jacinto River is the sprawling Lake Elsinore, the largest natural lake in the state. Originally known as Laguna Grande by early Spanish explorers, Lake Elsinore has a rich history in the region, used as a rest stop to camp and water animals for trappers, prospectors of the Gold Rush, and for the great explorer of the Wild West, John Charles Frémont. In addition to this history as an outpost for adventurous spirits, Lake Elsinore has also a history of strangeness, and over the years has accrued a reputation for being the home of some strange beast lurking within its depths.

Lake Elsinore, California

Lake Elsinore, California

Stories of strange creatures in the lake were first circulated by the Native Americans of the region, who long spoke of monstrous serpent-like beasts which were seen from time to time, and early settlers of the area occasionally reported seeing weird reptilian, dinosaur-like creatures in the lake as well. One early account from 1884 describes an enormous scaled creature with a long neck, which was called a “sea serpent.” The Lake Elsinore monster would firmly enter into the public consciousness with a sensational sighting made in 1934 by a rancher named C.B. Greenstreet, who claimed that he had been out on the lake with his wife and daughter when they saw a huge water monster measuring 100 feet long and with a 30-foot tail, which was swimming lazily near the surface. They observed it for a time before whatever it was suddenly took off with a burst of speed, leaving “Waves as high as light posts” in its wake. The encounter was apparently so upsetting that Greenstreet’s wife and daughter refused to go back to the lack from that day on.

The sighting was printed in several news publications at the time, including the Modesto Bee and News-Herald, and it was not long before it was being called “Elsie,” a reference to the more well-known Nessie, as well as “Hamlet,” due to the fact that the name Elsinore is taken from the name of a city that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The creature would have other high profile sightings as well. In 1967, a family boating on the lake reported sighting the beast, which they described as being a huge dark, slender shape which rolled as it swam and had humps that poked above the surface. A few years later, in 1970, one witness by the name of Bonne Play allegedly saw the creature not once, but twice. Play described the lake monster as being around 12 feet in length, with humps and a saurian appearance. Not long after this, 3 state park officials reported seeing the creature cruising along not 50 feet from their boat, and it was said to be around 12 feet long, with 3 or 4 humps and some sort of spines protruding from its back.

Lake Elsinore monster sculpture

Lake Elsinore monster sculpture

Sightings continued into the 1990s, with a string of reports made in 1992, and when this author went to Lake Elsinore back in my university days, I personally heard two accounts from this period, which were indeed how this particular lake monster first came to my attention. In one account, in 1993 a man was kayaking on the lake when he reported that a large, dark shape around 15 feet long and described as looking somewhat like a whale actually came up to nudge the kayak before sinking back into the depths. In another case from 1994, a fisherman on the lake claimed to have actually hooked into the creature. The man at first thought he had snagged a log on the bottom, but as he yanked on the line, a large head floated up from the bottom and proceeded to thrash once to break the line and swim off. The head was claimed to look like that of an alligator.

Interestingly, far from some isolated lake in the middle of untamed wilderness, Lake Elsinore is well visited, and situated in a highly populated area. Whatever it is, Elsie has become a fixture in the Lake Elsinore community, a sort of town mascot. There was even a 122 foot-long, 15 foot- tall sculpture of Elsie constructed out of 5 pieces made of chicken wire, wood, black plastic sheeting and foam packing material in 1988 by a Brian Moucka and Jeanne Tanase. The sea monster was unveiled at the town of Lake Elsinore’s centennial celebration, where it was towed out into the lake by boat and was promptly ripped apart when it snagged on the bottom. A fundraising campaign was launched to sell a variety of Elsie themed merchandise to raise money for a sturdier, fiberglass version of the sculpture, which became so popular that it was a regular attraction at parades and events until wind damage and lack of funds to maintain it, as well as safety and insurance concerns, caused it to fade away into obscurity. The weathered sculpture now sits forgotten on a plot of land on private property.

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While Lake Elsinore is large enough to perhaps house a creature as large as the purported Lake Elsinore monster, there are some issues that cast serious doubt on its existence. The main problem is that Lake Elsinore has wildly fluctuating water levels, a history of extremely low levels, and indeed has completely gone dry on more than one occasion. The first time the lake dried up was during the great 1862–65 drought, after which it gradually filled again until water levels were normal in 1872. In the mid-1930s Lake Elsinore went bone dry once again, only to fill back up by 1938. The longest continual span of time during which the lake completely dried up was during most of the 1950s, after which it was refilled once again in the early 1960s. In none of these complete dry-ups of the lake was there ever any large lake monster found floundering about on the bottom. Of course, those who believe that the creature is real argue that whatever it is could survive out of water as well, and likely hauled itself out of the lake to hide in nearby caves until the lake filled again, yet on each occasion the lake was dried up for years, leaving one to question the plausibility of this theory. There is also the idea that the creature may have retreated up the San Jacinto River in times of drought, only to return when the lake filled once again. Another theory as to what might be behind the sightings is that it is not a living creature, but rather misidentifications of bubbling mud created by the violent outgassing of sulfur springs in the area. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly odd, considering that the lake is heavily frequented by people and is a popular recreation area, that a monster as big as Elsie is not sighted more regularly.

So is it possible that some large aquatic beast inhabits Lake Elsinore, or is this all flights of fancy, misidentification, or an inside joke crafted from old Native American legends to get more tourist dollars coming in? If it is real, what sort of animal could it possibly be? In recent years, Elsie has more or less faded into the background, and most mentions of it are decidedly tongue in cheek. Yet there are those, especially the ones who have seen it, that insist that it is real. What are we to make of these stories? Indeed, what is it about some lakes that draw to them such stories of fleetingly glimpsed bizarre creatures prowling their waters? Is it our innate sense of wonder when looking at lakes, some need to embrace mysteries in the wild places of the world? Or are these truly the domain of unknown animals that we are nowhere near understanding? One thing that seems certain is that wherever there is a large lake, no matter where it is, tales of monsters seem to pop up.