Lake Erie is the fourth largest lake of the five North American Great Lakes, sprawled out over 9,910 sq, and is the shallowest and smallest by volume of its brethren. It was named after the native Erie people, a shortened form of the Iroquoian word erielhonan, meaning “long tail,” and stretches between the Canadian province of Ontario, with the U.S. states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York on its western, southern, and eastern shores. Like the other Great Lakes it is more like an inland sea than a lake, and it has also long said to be the haunt of something very mysterious prowling through its waters.
The Lake Erie creature itself is most often described as being a 9 to 12 m (30 to 40 ft) long undulating beast, and very serpentine in appearance, with a dark gray or black coloration. Sightings of something very bizarre lurking in Lake Erie go back centuries. The natives of the region told of a great water spirit dwelling within the lake called the Oniare, a huge, horned water serpent with venomous breath that prowled the area and capsized boats. Perhaps the first known recorded modern encounter with the creature allegedly occurred in 1793, when a captain aboard the sloop Felicity spotted a snake-like creature more than 16 feet long moving through the water while duck hunting near Sandusky, Ohio.
In 1817 there was another well-known early report, when two brothers named Dusseau saw an enormous monster, 20 to 30 feet long, that seemed to have been beached and possibly dying. In this particular case the beast was said to look as if it had actual arms, and its appearance was reminiscent of a sturgeon. They apparently left and came back later with company, but all that was left were marks from its thrashing and large, anomalous scales. Later in the 1800s we have the sighting made by the crew of a ship headed out across Lake Erie towards Toledo, Ohio from Buffalo, New York in 1892. As they cut through the waves there was apparently a commotion in the water ahead, and upon closer inspection it turned out to be some gargantuan serpent at least 50 feet long, with long, prominent fins and saucer-like eyes that were “viciously sparkling.” Then in 1896 there was an encounter made by four witnesses who watched it for 45 minutes as the dog-headed beast cavorted about off the shore of Crystal Beach near Fort Erie, Ontario.
Sightings continued, although there were obviously some people who began to have fun with it all. According to cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in his book Cryptozoology A to Z, in 1931 two fishermen named Clifford Wilson and Francis Cogenstose claimed to have not only come across the mysterious monster, but to have clubbed it to death and stuffed it into a shipping crate. However, when a curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History went to investigate it, the creature was found to be merely a very large Indian python. It was still an unusual thing to see in the area, but far from the Lake Erie monster that everyone had come to know.
The Lake Eerie monster would later come to be known as “Bessie,” after the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Port Clinton, and continued to be sighted sporadically over the decades and right up into more modern times. In the 1980s there was a sighting made by two fishermen who were throwing in lines near the East 55th Street marina in Cleveland, Ohio, off their 20-foot fishing boat, the Cool Breeze. It had been a calm day just after dawn when the boat was rocked by a disturbance in the water that jolted their vessel. When the two startled men looked into the water they saw what looked like an immense black shape at least as long as the boat and similar in shape to an alligator, which then grabbed at the boat with its arms and shook it to send them grabbing for anything they could hold on to before gliding off into the depths.
In September of 1990 a Harold Bricker, his wife Cora, and their son Robert, were out on Sandusky Bay to enjoy a day out fishing. They stopped their boat and began preparing when Harold claimed to have seen a giant serpentine creature swimming through the water around 1,000 feet from them, described as black in color and around 40 feet long. According to the Los Angeles Times article on the sighting at the time, five other witnesses has seen the same exact thing. This sighting was followed by a spate of similar reports from Sandusky Bay, and Thomas Solberg, the owner of Huron Lagoon Marina, posted a $100,000 reward for a live specimen, which apparently still stands and has obviously never been collected. Another fairly recent account was given to Weird Ohio, by a witness calling himself Franklin P. Wainwright, who says he saw it off near Vermilion, Ohio while out fishing on his 18-foot Boston Whaler. The witness says:
In early July, I was having one of those nights where I was just cruising the lake. I anchored the boat a few hundred yards off shore and was just lying on my back drinking a few cans of beer. As sad as it is in hindsight, I found that the combination of the rocking of the boat and a few beers was one of the only surefire methods of overcoming my insomnia. I don’t know how many mornings that summer I woke up fully clothed on the deck of my boat with cans scattered about. It wasn’t happiest period of my life.
This particular night, I was awakened from my slumber by something rubbing against the bottom of the boat. The noise and the impact woke me and I immediately heard a noise that I find hard to describe. It was the rushing of water followed by the slap of something against the surface of the lake. I sprang up and grabbed the lantern which I always left burning in the bow of the boat so that no other vessels would plow into me at night. Then I lunged to the gunwale and held the light over the water to have a look. What I saw I will never forget. Before I go any further, let me say that I was not drunk when I saw what I saw. I had been sleeping for at least three hours, and I had only had four beers. I am sure what I am about to describe is in no way the product of any alcohol induced hallucination.
There was a long, thick creature a few feet beneath the keel of my boat. All exaggeration aside, this thing was at LEAST twenty feet long. It darted with incredible speed away from my skiff as I struggled to make out its form beneath the inky black surface of the water. When it was about 30 feet away from my vessel, the beast reared its body up out of the lake. Although it was still dark out, it was a clear night with a full moon shinning down on the still surface of the lake. Because of this fact I was able to clearly make out the long serpentine body of the animal and its large, round head. That was all I saw before it submerged again and disappeared forever. There is no doubt in my mind that that thing intentionally slammed into my boat. The first instinct I had when I saw it was that I had invaded its territory and it was letting me know. Perhaps like a common eel it had been attracted to the glow of my lantern. I cannot say for sure, but that was the last night I ever spent alone on Lake Erie. I’ve only gone fishing at night a few times in the past two years, and never by myself.
Needless to say, the sleeplessness of that summer only got worse after I looked that monster in the eye. Thankfully since then, my life has returned, more or less, to normal. I’ve remarried, see my kid often, and have a new job much better than the one I was so worried about back then. When I think back to that summer, the only really terrifying aspect of it I haven’t managed to reckon with is the mystery of what I saw that night.
Even more spectacular was a spate of reports from 2001 in which numerous swimmers came forward claiming to have been actually attacked by Bessie while swimming near the Port Dover pump house, often with large bite marks on their legs and bodies to prove it. The bites were explained away as those of other known fishes or exotic species such as the bowfin and even snapping turtles, but there were many who insisted that they had been victims of none other than Bessie.
The mystery of the Lake Erie monster has never been satisfactorily explained, although there have been many efforts to come up with a rational explanation. On is that these are simply misidentifications of very large lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), which can get up to 7 feet or more in length and several hundred pounds. Lake Erie was once teeming with these sturgeon, although they were nearly fished out at one point. It seems possible that the fish’s prehistoric appearance could startle some people, but it is nowhere near the reported sizes for Bessie. Another idea is that this is simply an urban legend that has been played up on to bring tourists in, but how does this explain sightings going back hundreds of years? Could this be something else altogether, perhaps some new species or surviving dinosaur? There are no answers in sight, and for now it might just be a good idea to keep your eyes peeled if you ever find yourself looking out over the waters of Lake Erie.