Month: September 2016

A MONSTER IN THE WATER: Paducah’s Sea Serpent of 1838

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It seems as if everyone is trying to catch a monster these days. Make your way down to the river and you are likely to see dozens of folks searching for creatures…with their phones. Pokemon Go — an augmented reality game that involves competing to capture cartoon pocket monsters — has taken the world by storm, and our riverfront is evidently a pretty good place to find these virtual beasts.

While Pokemon Go is a relatively recent fad, capturing monsters (even fake ones) on our riverfront is not. In fact, one tall story of a creature in our waters dates back nearly to Paducah’s founding, a sea serpent that reportedly got stranded on the bank just downriver from Paducah in July of 1838. The story of the river leviathan spread far beyond Paducah, and our sources come from two east coast newspapers: the Philadelphia Ledger and Baltimore Sun (see the attached articles).

The articles from both newspapers provide the identical, specific details:
*Both called the creature an eel.
*The eel was said to be 130 feet 7 inches long!!!
*It got caught in the shallows.
*It swallowed a steamboat called the Dolphin.
*The skin of the eel was sent to the Western Museum in Cincinnati for exhibition.

That’s one big fish, but maybe a little too big. Something about the story seems a little fishy.

Now there are a few details that border on the truth. Eels do exist in the Ohio River though they are not common. Old records show that there was a steamboat operating at the time called the Dolphin. And there was a museum in Cincinnati called the Western Museum which was known for exhibiting weird artifacts (sort of like PT Barnum’s American Museum in New York).

It’s the size of the serpent which is far-fetched. An eel measuring over 130 feet long would be as long as the longest dinosaur that ever existed. The longest blue whale ever recorded was 111 feet. For comparison’s sake, I’ve attached a photo from 1913 of some British sea anglers posing next to their ocean catch of a 7 foot 4 inch conger eel, the largest known eel species only found in saltwater. As imposing as it looks in that photo, it is 18 times smaller than our reported river serpent from 1838. Also, imagine how big an eel’s mouth would have to be to swallow a steamship. Impossible!!
There is absolutely no way that an eel could grow to that size in the relatively small and shallow Ohio River, much less hide out long enough to even get to that length. Plus, the “Nahant” referenced in the Baltimore Sun article is a mythical sea beast from Massachusetts, kind of like the Loch Ness Monster, which is another clue that this a tall tale.

So what’s really going on in this story?

The truth is that I can’t be really sure, but it seems as if the editors of these stories are having a laugh at someone, and if I had to guess, I’d say it’s at the expense of the captain and crew of the Dolphin steamer. Perhaps the Dolphin ran aground on a sandbar exposed by low water, or got caught in some rope, or collided with another vessel. Whatever the case, the claim that the ship was attacked and swallowed by a sea serpent was all in jest.

But did river monsters ever exist?

A story posted in the Washington D.C. Madisonian just two years later (January 1, 1940) speaks of a water serpent caught in the Ohio near McCracken County. The article said it “measured eight feet in length” and “was the thickness of a man’s leg.” The creature was reported to be of a dull brown color and was taken to Wilmington, the former seat of McCracken County.

I don’t know about you, but I’d say eight feet is plenty big!

For more big fish stories, come visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this article, make sure to also “like” our Facebook page.

Thank you to Local and Family History patron Brian Russell for drawing our attention to this story.

PADUCAHAN QUOTE OF THE WEEK #18

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DOES PADUCAH STILL HOLD THE RECORD FOR MARATHON SWIMMING?!!!

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With the Olympics around the corner, we thought we’d take this opportunity to remind you of a few world swimming records.
*Most individual medals – Michael Phelps with 7.
*Fastest unassisted swim of the English Channel – Petar Stoychev at 6 hours 57 minutes and 50 seconds.
*Unofficial national distance record for continuous team swimming — THE CITIZENS OF PADUCAH at 613.2 miles!!! (Maybe)

In the summer of 1970, the citizens of Paducah, led by Noble Park lifeguards and the Parks Department, set out to break a swimming record…longest consecutive swim. The rules and the plan were simple: don’t stop swimming. For 15 days straight, 24 hours a day, at least one member of the team had to be swimming. Any stoppage and the competition was over.

The previous record was 502.3 miles set by swimmers in Niles, IL. The Paducah team was shooting for 550 miles (roughly the equivalent of swimming downriver from Paducah to the Mississippi-Louisiana border) with the whole thing taking place in the Noble Park swimming pool.

The first lap was swum by city commissioner Henry Puryear at one o’clock in the afternoon on August 23, 1970 and for the next 368 ½ hours, volunteers filed into the Noble Park Pool one at a time to complete half hour swimming shifts consisting of about 20 laps. Parks director Byron McGill admitted there were a few occasions when volunteers didn’t show up and some volunteers had to take on much longer distances.

Despite a few scheduling hiccups, the Paducah team thought they had the record well in hand until they found out with only two days left that another team from Midlothian, IL had just reached 604.3 miles, smashing the old record by more than 100 miles.

Undauted, the citizens of Paducah rallied. While they’d averaged about 38 miles a day previously, on the last two days they swam 52.74 and 43.22 miles respectively. With commissioner Puryear also swimming the final lap, the competition ended on Monday, September 7, at 9:30 PM.

All told in the 15 day event, about 325 residents swam 16,191 laps totaling 613.2 miles! Truly, this was an incredible cooperative and creative civic feat! Better still, the Noble Park Pool remained open to the public during the whole competition. The marathon swimming took place in a single lane roped off in the middle of the pool.

Curiously, it has proven difficult to find any record of this swimming record outside of the local paper. No amount of Google searching has turned up anything else, so lots of questions remain. Was this truly a national competition? Were there official rules and guidelines? How were the competing teams linked and was there an overseeing body? And most importantly, does the record still stand?

The Paducah swimmers record of 613.2 miles may have been broken the very next day, just like they broke the record of the team from Midlothian. Then again, it may still stand. So as far as we know at this time, Paducah still holds the unofficial national distance record for continuous team swimming.

If you remember this swimming record or participated in it, if you know how the competition originated and if the record still stands, then please share your memories and information in the comments section.

For more waterlogged stories, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this story, make sure to “like” our Facebook page, too.

–Matt Jaeger