Monster or Myth? The Legendary Seneca Serpent

by Julie Cummins

Does something evil actually lurk below the water in Seneca Lake, or is it hearsay?

Legends of sea serpents have spawned around the world, especially the famous Nessie in the Loch Ness in Scotland. There is the fabled Lake Erie Monster with over 100 eyewitness sightings of a blackish-greenish serpent spanning 30 – 50 feet. In practically every case, believers who have tried to document their existence have failed to do so. Yet tales about them continue to proliferate, including this one about Seneca Lake.

Here’s the real story, or is it? According to a report in the Rochester Herald on July 14,1899, around 7 p.m. the lake was calm as the side-wheeler steamship, the Otetiani, was cruising down Seneca Lake. The passengers were enjoying themselves when they saw a large object in the water. The captain observed it with his telescope and gave the engine room orders to slow down. The Otetiani steered within 100 yards of what appeared to be the keel of a capsized boat. The crew prepared to lower a boat when the object quickly moved away. Captain Herendeen ordered full speed ahead and came alongside the thing when it raised its head, opened its mouth, and displayed two rows of pointed white teeth. One of the passengers was a geologist who thought the creature was an extinct North American marine lizard belonging to a group of fish-eaters. He described it this way.

“Its head was perhaps four feet long and triangular in shape. Its mouth was very long and armed with two rows of triangular white teeth, as sharp as those of a shark, but in shape more like those of a sperm whale.

The body was covered with a horny substance that was as much like the carapace of a terrapin as anything I know. The horny substance was brown in color and of a greenish tinge. The belly of the creature … was cream white. Its eyes were round like those of a fish, and it did not wink.”

At this point, Captain Herendeen sped up the boat to collide with the creature but it slipped underwater only to reappear just as the Otetiani was in position to ram it and did so. The passengers were knocked down and a hole was ripped into the side of the serpent. Supposedly, the impact broke its spine and it died.

Despite screams from the women and cheers from the men, the captain and witnesses aboard the boat knew they would need proof of the astonishing creature to be believed. Lifeboats were quickly lowered and boat hooks placed around the carcass.

Just as the body was almost raised out of the water, the rope near the tail slipped off and the weight of the serpent was too much for the men holding the ropes and they had to let go. The Seneca Lake monster fell back into the water, slowly sank and disappeared. But was it gone forever?

A legend like this is ripe for enticing hoaxes. One documented case occurred in 1930 when a group of boys constructed a crude head of a sea monster and towed it out into the middle of the lake. Someone, most likely one of the perpetrators, called the Geneva Times and a photographer snapped a picture of the boys with the serpent head, looking quite pleased with themselves. The episode caused quite a stir and revived the folklore.

Seneca Lake is the largest and longest, at 38 miles, of the 11 Finger Lakes. It is also the deepest at 618 feet. In comparison, Loch Ness is 22-1/2 miles long. The name is derived from the Seneca nation of Native Americans and means “Place of Stones.” Belief in the serpent can be traced back to ancient Indian villages.

The lake is fed by underwater springs and rumors of an underwater tunnel between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes persist as both lakes are below sea level. Could it be a lake serpent’s lair? In 1995 a Naval Undersea Warfare Center was created as a sonar test facility.

Adding to the theory of the tunnels and currents, supposedly the bodies of people who have drowned in the lake have never been found.

There is no lack of speculations as to the existence and identity of the water creature. Some residents along the lake claim to have witnessed fish as big as a human, or a large carp, or a giant snapping turtle. Others have believed it is an unknown species of a large marine animal that is possibly prehistoric. Most “sightings” have occurred in the summertime when the constant temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees.

In a city-wide effort of planned events to promote tourism, the Geneva City Council seized the opportunity to promote interest in the lake and city by voting 7 to 1 on July 1, 2015, to approve an amendment to the city code to prohibit the hunting or trapping of the Seneca Lake monster. Was it just smart PR or tongue-in-cheek?

Is it just superstition, legend, practical joke, newspaper sensationalism, monster or myth – or was the original story just a fabrication told by the folks on the boat who had over indulged in wine? It’s up to you to decide. Perhaps the City Council could hold a contest to name the lake creature. Any suggestions?

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