Do you believe in the Seneca Lake monster? Mystery or myth, monster or make-believe, the history behind this legend is long and rich.
Christopher Pike spent about a year and a half learning everything he could about the legend. But to this day, nearly four years later, he still has questions that remain unanswered.
Why does the description of the monster made by several people not match up with that of lake sturgeon, the fish that provides the seemingly only logical explanation to eyewitness accounts that describe seeing a large, reptilian-like creature lurking about Seneca Lake? Does that discredit the “notable citizens” of the 20th century who reported seeing the monster? Why would someone like a sheriff or a public works comissioner lie about that?
Most of Pike’s questions stem from the most infamous, and most eerie, documented sighting of the serpent – that of passengers aboard the Otetiani in 1900. He learned of the story while doing research for his 2015 documentary “Exploring Seneca,” which aired in Corning’s Palace Theater. Being the first formally documented sighting, the Otetiani account served as the logical jumping-off point for the rest of Pike’s research and later, his film.
Pike describes the event on board the Otetiani:
“It was about halfway up the lake, right around Dresden, N.Y. and all of the sudden they spotted this thing in the water that they thought was an overturned boat and as the captain approached it he was thinking, you know, ‘there’s gonna be people in the water that need to be rescued out’ so he’s trying to approach this thing that looks like a boat and as they approach this thing just went under the water…and there’s nobody around, no people, no floating liferafts, nothing and so they’re looking around, and all of a sudden, a few minutes later, they claim to see this creature raise its head above the water and showed off two rows of white sharp teeth.”
The passengers claim that the ship struck the creature, killing it, and while attempting to haul it towards Geneva, the serpent’s body broke through the ropes tying it to the boat and it fell to the bottom of the lake.
“So, was it really dead?” Pike asked. “Was it stunned? Who knows? Is there more? If this thing is real, is there only one? Probably not.”
The incident was documented in several local and regional newspapers, including the Geneva Gazette, the Elmira Star-Gazzette, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Syracuse Journal. The story was granted credence due to the number of notable citizens on board who described seeing the creature, including a sheriff, a geology professor, and several public works commissioners.
“They were very reliable sources for the time,” Pike said.
While in the 1900s, we had to trust people for their word, today we have the luxury of demanding photographic evidence, and many have delivered. Some even report their sightings directly to Pike, like one man who was staying in Belhurst Castle at the northern end of Seneca Lake.
“One morning he woke up real early, I think it was in April-May timeframe, and he saw something out in the water, and he was like ‘what in the world is that? That’s crazy,'” Pike recalled. “So he took a picture of it, and sent it to me […] if you zoom in on the picture, it looks like there’s scales on the back, it looks almost a little reptilian, it was really bizarre.”
The most logical explanation for these sightings, and the one Pike believes to be the most likely, is that the creatures people are seeing are actually lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon are a type of temperate freshwater fish that are typically 9-10 feet long and weigh 300 lbs. When they’re close together, the fish could appear to be a much larger creature.
Pike argues it could be a combination of misidentification and overexaggeration.
“They see a giant fish, that may be one sturgen there, might be 10 feet long but they could be over-exaggerating saying ‘wow that’s a giant fish, whoa that’s a monster!’, that type of thing,” Pike said.
But there are some clear differences in the physical appearance between lake sturgeon and the lake monster – for example, the passengers on board the Otetiani described the creature’s “sharp white teeth,” but sturgeon have no teeth at all.
The fact that such discrepancies exist is befitting for a lake that has long been shrouded in mystery.
The largest and deepest of the 11 Finger Lakes, Native Americans used to believe Seneca was bottomless. Due to its length and depth, the lake only freezes over about once every 100 years.
“I think if there is a creature there, I think this would be the lake to go,” Pike said.
That being said, Pike isn’t sold on the idea.
“I want to believe, I do,” Pike said. “Because I think that would be just awesome. But honestly, I think it’s probably just lake sturgen, that people are overreacting to. But hopefully, nature proves me wrong. Because I would love for it to be real. “