Lake George Monster
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Lake Champlain might have Champ, and Loch Ness might have Nessie, but the Lake George monster is so much more than just a might-have-been. It is a known and documented fact that, during the summer of 1904, this creature repeatedly surfaced in the waters of northern Lake George in the Town of Hague NY, wreaking havoc with the tourist trade, frightening honeymooners and reportedly causing at least one man to swear off liquor permanently.
And if reports of the Lake George Monster's existence in such reputable publications as the New York Evening Sun, the Albany Times Union, Yankee Magazine, Adirondack Life, Popular Mechanics and The Chronicle of Glens Falls are not enough to convince some of the doubting Thomases among you, you need only to stop in at one of the attractions in Lake George, the Lake George Historical Association on Canada Street in Lake George Village to see for yourselves the famous sea serpent who has affectionately come to be known as George.
The story of George dates back to the year 1904. At that time, Hague NY was the Lake George vacation home to two prominent New York City residents, Col. William Mann and Harry Watrous, who delighted in cooking up practical jokes. Mann, publisher of the New York scandal sheet, Town Topics (forerunner of The New Yorker magazine), owned a home on Waltonian Island just north of Hague, New York. Watrous, renowned artist and president of the National Academy of Design, lived in a mansion on the mainland, directly opposite Waltonian.
During the summer of George’s birth, these two men were engaged in a fierce but friendly competition to see who could catch the season’s largest trout while fishing in the Adirondacks. Watrous was waxing ebullient in the knowledge that he was the front runner. But one day, as both men were out in their fishing boats on northern Lake George, Watrous noticed Mann reeling what appeared to be a 30 to 40 pound trout. Not believing his eyes, Watrous maneuvered his fishing boat closer to Mann’s, but Mann was evasive. After making sure that Watrous had taken due note of the size of the fish, he began rowing furiously toward his island home in Hague NY. Reports have it that when Watrous called out demanding to see the catch, Mann shouted back that he could waste no time in getting this record-breaking fish to a scale before it dried out and lost precious ounces.
The next time Watrous saw the huge fish was when he visited Mann at his northern Lake George vacation home a week later. By this time, Mann had had the fish mounted and hung in a place of prominence high on his living room wall. He carefully rearranged the furniture in a manner which made it difficult for visitors to get too close to his prize. But Watrous’ sharp eyes quickly determined that there was something fishy -- or shall we say non-fishy -- about Mann’s trout. Watrous realized that he had been taken -- hook, line and sinker -- and that the fish was made of wood!
Although Watrous was a great lover of practical jokes, he only enjoyed them when he was the perpetrator. Being on the receiving end of such a giant hoax was, as it were, a completely different kettle of fish. In a fit of injured pride, he spent the next several days concocting his retaliation. In an interview with the Evening Sun in 1934, Watrous, ever the artist, recounted his creation of the Lake George monster.
"I got a cedar log and fashioned one end of it into my idea of a sea monster or hippogriff", he told the reporter. "For eyes I inserted in the sockets of the monster two telegraph pole insulators of green glass...I painted the head in yellow and black stripes, painted the inside of the mouth red and the teeth white, painted two red places for nostrils and painted the ears blue".
Watrous explained how he anchored the monster with a stone out in the bay on Lake George near his boathouse. With a pulley system which he designed, he could manipulate the monster from his dock. "We went out in a boat and dropped the stone anchor, sinking the monster out of sight," Watrous recalled "Then we rowed back to shore and suddenly let go of the pulley rope, with the result that the cedar log, because of its buoyancy, jumped out of the water for almost its entire length.
Watrous admitted that even he was a bit frightened the first time he saw the monster surface. "The rope being twisted going through the pulley gave the head of the monster a sort of twisting motion so that it appeared to be looking from side to side, and occasionally turned entirely around as if to survey the scenery from all angles," he said.
Mann, who was in New York City during this design and testing stage returned to Hague NY shortly thereafter. Twilight was falling as Watrous lay in wait on the shore of Lake George, watching Mann climb into his boat with several house guests whom he had brought up from the city.
"I watched as the launch approached," Watrous told the Evening Sun reporter, "and just as it was about ten feet away from my trap I released the monster. It came up nobly, the head shaking as if to rid itself of water, and I will say that ... it was a very menacing spectacle."
So menacing, in fact, that Mann and his passengers lost their wits, according to Watrous: "Mr. Davies, who had a rather high-pitched voice uttered a scream that must have heard as far away as Burlington, Vermont. Mrs. Bates, a very intrepid lady, of Milesian extraction stood on a seat in the boat and beat the water with her parasol, shouting indistinguishable sentences in her native tongue. Col. Mann shouted, "Good God! What is it?" and kept repeating his query as long as the boat was in sight. Watrous explained that he then pulled on the rope, causing the Lake George monster to submerge before the party could examine it too carefully.
Mann raced toward his island with his screaming passengers. Suddenly Watrous heard a loud splash followed by language which is better left unsaid as Mann, in his hurry to get onto dry land, fell flounder. The Colonel later explained away the mishap, saying that he was not jumping ship but had merely mistaken a shadow on the lake for the end of his dock.
News of the Lake George monster spread quickly not only throughout Hague NY and the Lake George region, but throughout the entire state. It seems that Mr. Davies, who had been in the boat with Mann, was a drama critic for the Evening Sun. He wired a report to his paper which published an article with the headline "Is there a sea serpent in Lake George?" Other New York papers quickly dispatched reporters to the scene. It is not clear whether these reporters deemed this a plum assignment -- escaping the hot city to scout the waters of Lake George NY -- or an assignment for which they should demand hazardous duty pay.
Throughout the next weeks and even seasons, Watrous occasionally stole out under the cloak of darkness, moving his monster to different sites along the shore of northern Lake George. He was always careful to ensure that nobody got a clear look at the serpent, most especially not the reporters and photographers.
Bernie Clifton, who still lives in Hague, and whose parents owned the nearby Island Harbor House Hotel at the time of the monster’s exploits, recalls the following tale told to him by his mother. A young couple honeymooning at the hotel had gone out for a moonlight canoe ride when the monster surfaced close to their canoe, causing it to capsize. The groom, unable to keep his wits about him, swam to shore, leaving his bride to fend for herself. She eventually made her way to shore, stormed into the hotel and packed her bags, announcing not only the end of the honeymoon but also for the marriage. It is reported that she was actually grateful to the serpent for showing her that the true monster was her (soon to be former) husband.
Whether Watrous grew bored with his prank or whether local hotels became wise to his tricks and ordered him to retire the monster before the Lake George tourism trade suffered irreparable losses is unclear. It is said that one hotel proprietor asked his guests to refrain from making any mention of the monster to newly-arrived guests. On the other hand, he told them, if they wished to relate any monster tales to those staying at other establishments in town, he had nothing against that. In any case Watrous eventually packed away his monster and, over the years it was forgotten.
Sometime around 1920 Louis Spelman of Silver Bay, NY discovered the monster when some property was being sold in town. He took it along home with him. One summer thereafter, he decided to return the monster to its native waters to see if the pulley mechanism still worked. However, its appearance, it is reported, caused a near disaster on an excursion boat as the passengers all rushed to one side to get a closer look. Deciding that the monster was too dangerous for the serene waters of Lake George, Spelman retired him for good.
In 1961, Walt Grishkot went on his own monster hunt and discovered the serpent in Spelman’s workshop, sparking stories in area newspapers about the resurfacing of the monster. Kay Bailey, a Lake George vacationer and the cousin of Shirley Armstrong, the intrepid Times Union reporter covering the monstrous story, decided she simply had to have a monster all her own. Armstrong made Spelman an offer he couldn’t refuse, and soon the Lake George monster was on its way to Bailey’s home, which happened to be on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
Before his departure, the Lake George monster, which Armstrong christened "George", was given a proper bon voyage party at Alfred’s Restaurant (today’s Montcalm, a northern Lake George restaurant), with local dignitaries attending. A good time was had by all, though Grishkot reports that George found the choice of seafood as the main course somewhat tasteless. Miniature replicas of George were crafted by Rod Bucklin, former executive director of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce, and presented to individuals who had played a role in promoting Lake George NY.
While in the Virgin Islands, George participated in a number of parades and carnivals, achieving fame, if not fortune, throughout the island. Eventually, however, Armstrong and Bailey decided that George really belonged on the shores of Lake George.
Grishkot and his wife Joan, who were planning a Caribbean cruise, agreed to bring George back home. Grishkot told The Chronicle of the difficulties he encountered trying to get George through Customs. "The officers didn’t quite know how to estimate the duty on George," he recalled, "because, in their books, there was nothing listed under the category of monster." However, all’s well that ends well, and George finally returned to his native shores.
At the time, Hague New York did not have a Lake George museum suitable for George. The Lake George Historical Association on Canada Street in Lake George graciously offered him a place to rest his weary fins and Armstrong placed him on loan there. We hope that in the not-too-distant future George will wend his way back to northern Lake George at his home in Hague NY.
by Ginger Henry Kuenzel