By Lynn Arave
\FORGET "Nessie," the fabled — and still sought-after — Loch Ness monster in Scotland: Utah, it seems, boasts at least five different monsters in as many lakes.
How about "the meandrous monster of Utah Lake"? This serpent-like beast had its heyday in the mid-1860s to the early 1880s — a competing cousin to an even more famous creature farther north, the Bear Lake monster.
There were similar 19th-century tales of great beasts inhabiting the Great Salt Lake, Panguitch Lake and Sevier Lake, D. Robert Carter, a historian and former schoolteacher, said during a presentation on the subject at the Utah State Historical Society's 49th annual meeting at Westminster College last month.
The granddaddy of these legends, that of the Loch Ness monster, is said to go back centuries, but written accounts of sightings began proliferating in the late 1800s. Then, in 1934, a London physician took a famous, if fuzzy, photograph of a what might have been a long-necked monster (or a tree trunk), generating a lot of speculation — and a healthy tourist industry.
Utah's monsters haven't lured too many sightseers, but they've kept more than a few people on the lookout, especially about a century ago.
Indians had told white settlers the legend of the Bear Lake monster, and reports in the 1860s described a beast with large ears — and a mouth big enough to swallow a man.
One of the first reports of the Utah Lake monster surfaced in August 1868, shortly after the initial sighting of the Bear Lake monster. Henry Walker of Lehi was in Utah Lake in 1864 when "to his fear and surprise, he saw what looked like a large snake . . . with the head of a greyhound," Carter said.
In the late 1860s, two men reported splashing at the Jordan River and Utah Lake. They spotted a creature with a head shaped like a greyhound with "wicked-looking black eyes."
The Deseret News reported on the majority of these monster sightings, but Carter said the newspaper at one time accused Utah Valley residents of creating a character for Utah Lake.
The Great Salt Lake
Another newspaper, the Daily Corrine in Box Elder County, said all of the sightings were a sheer fabrication, claiming that the monster actually lived at the north end of the Great Salt Lake, as evidenced by recent sightings there.
Carter suspects the monster might represent modifications to the local Indians' belief in "water babies," dwarfs who sounded like crying babies and who would lure mortals into the water. While this belief may have helped the Native Americans explain drownings, pioneer settlers didn't want to believe in such myths. Snake-like monsters in the lakes were much more acceptable to them.
The Deseret News reported in the early 1870s that lake monsters were becoming fashionable, but by the 1880s they had fallen out of favor. Carter said they were then akin to a large species of bug "known as hum-bug."
There was one sighting and a brief upsurge in 1921 for the Utah Lake monster, but then it "sank in the depths of the lake" and apparently hasn't been seen since.
Though we more readily scoff at these monster tales today, Carter said even the 1870s were not without some unbelievers.
The Utah Lake monster, as one example, may not be an intentional lie, he said. Rather, the legend is likely based on illusion and imagination.
"And," Carter said, "a dearth of good optometrists."
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: email@example.com