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.