If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know “ghosts” is a metaphor that refers to the ghosts of our past, and most of the time, that manifests itself here in the form of photos of our vanishing places. Sometimes though, we run across a story so interesting, a piece of forgotten history or local lore so fascinating, that we feel compelled to write about it. This is one of those instances.
There are published accounts from as far back as 1894, and Native American legends going back much further, about a Loch Ness-style serpent in Devils Lake, North Dakota’s largest natural body of water, named in an approximate translation of the Lakota name, “Lake of the Spirits.”
Devils Lake-area residents are, of course, quite familiar with the legend, sometimes known as the Devils Lake Monster (not to be confused with a reported lake monster in Oregon of the same name) but there are surprisingly few modern references to a creature that has been reported for hundreds of years in Devils Lake.
One of the earliest accounts comes from the New York Sun, October 21st, 1894. It reads in part:
All descriptions of the serpent agree that it has alligator jaws and glaring red eyes. Its tail is about 80 feet long. The serpent usually appears in August and about sunset. The red glare of the sunset sky is often reflected in the eyes of the serpent like mirrors and the flashes of red light that go darting here and there as the serpent turns its head strike terror into the hearts of those on whom they fall. The serpent moves slowly along about a half mile from the shore, and in the course of a day or two makes the round of the lake. At times it lashes the water furiously with its tail and it leaves a simple shining wake as it pushes its way along.
The Sun article further describes the appearance of the serpent:
Its color is a slimy green, and it is easy to trace the waves of motion that begin at its head and follow along to its tail, three or four distinct waves being in evidence at the same time. It has ragged and enormous fins on its side and horny substances that project from its jaws, or directly behind them, and trail along in the water, but which, when it is angered, stick out in a horrible bristling attitude. Its scales sometimes glisten and sometimes lie so close to its back that they seem to be simply an ordinary snakeskin
In July of 1895, The Bismarck Tribune published a story which told the tale of a fisherman who reportedly hooked the monster and got towed on a high speed joyride around the lake. These early accounts of the Devils Lake Monster are frequently dismissed as sensationalized accounts by newspapers seeking readers and/or local business interests trying to draw tourists and settlers on the freshly laid railroad line. Nevertheless, reports of a serpent in Devils Lake would continue.
In August, 1904, The Wichita Beacon published a story that would be reprinted in other newspapers around the nation for months afterward.
Mrs. C.F. Craig, of Leeds, Mrs. Edgar Larue and Mrs. Carr Cleveland, while strolling along the bank of Devils Lake, at Chatauqua grounds, were terribly frightened by an object that resembled a sea serpent, which was lashing the water into white foam about a mile from shore.
The party secured opera glasses, and on returning, were horrified to see on a close examination, that the serpent was swimming north across the lake, and was leaving a vast wake behind it, as with slow but powerful and irresistible motion, the monster threaded its way through the water, with its long sinuous folds which were like a weavers beam.
The serpent’s body was very thick, and covered with huge and horribly loathesome-looking black scales. Its head was of snake-like formation, with a flashing, darting tongue, and two angry eyes as big as goose eggs, glowed in the monster’s head.
Another published mass-sighting of the serpent occurred in 1915 with a number of eyewitnesses reporting their accounts separately, including E.M. Lewis, a businessman, who sighted the creature from a train passing near the shore of Devils Lake. From the Grand Forks Daily Herald, July 21, 1915:
That Devils Lake Sea Serpent Basks in Sunshine For Admiring Crowds; Now They’ll Hunt it
(Herald Special Service) Devils Lake, N. D., July 21. — Stretched out on the surface of the bay of Devils Lake, fronting Chautauqua, the monster sea serpent basked. In the delightful evening sunshine shortly before sundown last night, while residents of Chautauqua and Greenwood looked on in silent amazement. The serpent was viewed from several different points.
There was no mistake about it. The monster, that has figured in the legends of Devils Lake for half a century, when only the Indians inhabited the country, or a descendant which answers the earliest description, was seen by so many that no one disputes the fact that it lives in the waters of the lake.
E. M. Lewis and Chas. Pillsbury, well known business men, saw the serpent very distinctly, unknown to each other. It was stretched out on the water about a quarter of a mile from shore. It is described as between fifty and sixty feet long and between a foot and two feet in diameter. Captain Walter Fursteneau of the police force, accompanied by his wife also witnessed the sight.
The last time the serpent was seen was a couple of years ago by Rev. C. L. Wallace of the M. E. Church. At that time it was in the extreme east end of the lake. It happens that this section is separated from the section where the serpent was seen last night, by a bridge at the Narrows, which in reality is a dike, there being no water passage. How the monster got into the west-end of the lake is the present mystery. That it vaulted the bridge, or else that there are two serpents in the lake, is the conclusion reached today. In any event, it has been established beyond the question of a doubt that a monster lives in the lake and already there is talk of expeditions to get in closer touch with the freak.
The legend of the Devils Lake Monster is certainly a fanciful and interesting tale, an entertaining story to be told around a campfire on a summer night, but there are no photos of the creature that I could find, and it’s interesting to note that actual sightings of the monster seem to have died down in the last fifty years, perhaps due to the seeming scientific impossibility of the creature.
Devils Lake is a body of water with no natural outlet, disconnected from any larger sea, and skeptics frequently question where the serpent could have come from. While re-tellings of Native American legend say the creature was stranded in Devils Lake after the last glaciers retreated, that would necessitate a lifespan of 9,000 years or more for the beast.
We have visited sites around Devils Lake, and although we have sometimes found a haunting panorama of imagery which includes abandoned homes and inundated roads from a time when the lake level was much lower than today, we have yet to see anything that resembles a serpent in Devils Lake. Have you?
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, original content copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy