What would cryptozoology be without lake monsters? These creatures, real or not, are well known to the public. Names like Ogopogo, Champ, and, of course, Nessie, possibly the most famous cryptid creature in the world, have stirred the imaginations of people for generations. The three cryptids mentioned above make up a sort of “who’s who” of lake monsters but are far from alone in the world. There are numerous less well-known lake monsters that allegedly haunt bodies of water of varying sizes across the globe. One of these lesser-known beasts is said to swim the waters of an unassuming river in Arkansas.
The White River monster or “Whitey,” as it is referred to by locals, has been periodically reported for more than 100 years. The monster is very well-known regionally and accepted as being real by a surprisingly high number of Arkansas residents. There are rumors that the White River monster first reared its head during the Civil War. Legend has it that the monster played a part in the sinking of a supply boat during the conflict. Details are extremely vague, however, and while I found many references to this story, I could never determine whether the vessel that was supposedly lost belonged to the Union or the Confederacy.
What is more clear is that sightings began to pick up in 1912 when timber workers, who were floating rafts of cedar down the river below Branson, Missouri, reported seeing something highly unusual. The workers said they saw something very large on the bottom of the river that they, at first, mistook for a boulder. When it moved, however, they realized it was something else altogether. They estimated the size of the creature to be at least 300 lbs. The witnesses described the monster as a turtle of enormous size. As one might imagine, the sighting caused quite a stir and local fishermen and hunters quickly organized a monster hunt. The results of this monster hunt have been lost to history. That being the case, it is probably safe to assume the monster hunters returned empty handed without ever seeing anything out of the ordinary.
In 1924, “Whitey” showed up further downstream in Arkansas. A woman reported seeing the monster surface and emit a loud “blowing noise.” She described the animal as gray in color with a “strange kind of hide.”
The monster of the White River received a boat load of publicity in 1937 after a farmer named Bramlett Bateman reported that some of his workers had seen something strange in a deep eddy just six miles downstream from Newport, Arkansas. Bateman, not simply taking the word of his workers, went to the river to take a look for himself and also sighted the beast. He described an animal that was a car-length in width and three car-lengths in length with the hide of an elephant. The story spread like wildfire across the nation as newspaper editors from coast-to-coast published Bateman’s account. It should be mentioned here that this intense interest in the White River monster by newspapers might have been fueled by the intense interest shown by the public when the first real wave of Loch Ness monster sighting coverage occurred just four years previously.
The hunt for “Whitey” received intense publicity. Newport residents fashioned a huge rope net they hoped would suffice to bag the monster. The net was 40-feet long and 15-feet wide and the plan was for a small armada of boats to sweep the eddy area with it in the hopes of catching the monster. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere was the fact that a fence was erected by the Newport Chamber of Commerce on the banks of the river overlooking the eddy where the monster had been seen. For a mere quarter locals could come and gawk as the monster hunters plied the waters in search of the creature. Alas, nothing was ever found.
The White River monster was spotted periodically over the years after the 1937 flap but didn’t really receive much in the way of attention again until 1971. That is the year Newport resident David Jenks reported seeing a huge animal in the river that he described as being gray and long with a “pointy bone” protruding from its head. He estimated the weight of the creature at 1,000 lbs. On June 28th of that same year, a man named Cloyce Warrren snapped a photograph that he said showed the monster. The photo was a bit blurry but seemed to show a hump of some sort floating in the river. These two sightings put the search for “Whitey” back into high gear. On July 5th, a county sheriff reported finding unusual footprints on Towhead Island just north of Bateman Eddy. The prints were 14” long and 8” wide with three long toes. The prints appeared to show a spur of some sort that projected from the heel. Periodic sightings continued over the summer of 1971. Foremost among them was a report filed by a fisherman and his grandson who claimed something had come up from the depths of the river and bumped their boat from below.
The Arkansas legislature designated a stretch of the White River between Newport and Possum Grape as the "White River Monster Refuge" in 1973. The resolution made it illegal to kill, harass, or otherwise harm the monster within the boundaries of the refuge. Whether this was done in jest or not I cannot say with any degree of certainty. I can think of only one law anywhere else in the country that is similar and that is the ordinance originally passed by Skamania County, Washington in 1969, which made it illegal to kill or harm a sasquatch. Most considered Skamania County’s actions to be a tongue-in-cheek jest meant to capitalize on tourist dollars. Having visited the county, I can assure you that the people of rural Washington take the sasquatch a lot more seriously than you might think. From what I can tell, longtime residents living along the White River feel the same way about their monster.
What could the White River monster be? Several theories have been advanced. Two have gained the most traction over the years. Many believe “Whitey” to be nothing more than a giant alligator snapping turtle. These turtles can grow to some truly impressive sizes. The largest ever caught was in excess of 400 lbs and they do inhabit the rivers, swamps, lakes, and reservoirs of the south. Descriptions of an animal with a large hump with spikes, a pointed head, and dark gray in color could describe a snapping turtle. Remember, too, that the lumber men working the river in 1912 initially described what they saw as a giant turtle. In addition, these turtles are believed to live up to 150 years. One excessively large specimen could be responsible for decades of sightings. There are problems with this theory though. Very few witnesses describe the White River monster as being in the 300-500 lb. range. Some, to the contrary, report the creature to be truly enormous and in excess of 1,000 lbs. Snapping turtles have never been known to get this big. In addition, most people living in rural bottom-lands are very familiar with what a snapping turtle looks like. For these folks to mistake a turtle for a monster seems unlikely.
Biologist Roy P. Mackal has put forth what has become another popular theory; mainly, the White River monster is nothing but an incredibly lost bull elephant seal. Mackal theorizes that the elephant seal ended up in the White River after traveling up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. Elephant seals are truly enormous creatures. Males can reach lengths in excess of 16-feet and weigh in at 6,600 lbs. The bulls are known for their large trunk-like proboscis from whence they get their name. The bulls use this “trunk” to help them make extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially important during mating season. Some of the descriptions given for the White River monster would seem to be a good match for a bull elephant seal. The “horn” that some have described protruding from the head of the creature could be nothing more than an elephant seal’s large trunk-like proboscis. The size of an elephant seal matches up to several of the descriptions of an animal the “size of a boxcar.” Also, some witnesses have described an odd type of skin on the White River monster that matches up well to what elephant seals look like during molting. It seems like a good match but, again, there are issues with this theory. The main problem is that no self-respecting elephant seal would be anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. The northern elephant seal ranges from Alaska to Mexico but are always found on the Pacific side of the North American continent. Southern elephant seals are found much farther south on the islands surround Antarctica and only occasionally near Australia and New Zealand. This makes the southern elephant seal an unlikely candidate to have ventured up the Mississippi River. Finally, elephant seals typically live only about 15 years. A wayward bull could not possibly account for the sightings over so many years.
Personally, I don’t put much stock into the snapping turtle or elephant seal theories. I do feel that the most likely explanation is that a known animal has ventured outside its known range (though not as far as an elephant seal would have to roam) and is being seen by the locals. I think it is entirely possible that what people have seen, and continue to see periodically, is a Gulf sturgeon. Sturgeon are an ancient group of fishes that have remained virtually unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs. Some types of sturgeon can reach massive sizes. The Gulf sturgeon can be in excess of 8-feet in length and weigh more than 200 lbs. They are covered in scutes (modified scales) that form a very effective protective armor for the fish. Some of these scutes do appear raised and give the sturgeon a “razorback” look (appropriate for a river in Arkansas). This could account for reports of the White River Monster having spike-like projections on its back. These scutes also give the sturgeon an appearance very different than that of other fish. They would appear prehistoric and alien to someone not familiar with them. The head of the Gulf sturgeon features an extended snout with four tactile barbels on the chin in front of the mouth. The unique design of the sturgeon’s head further adds to the odd appearance of the fish. The Gulf sturgeon is anadromous. In other words, it lives in marine environments but migrates to freshwater rives to spawn. The Gulf sturgeon's spawning habits have not been well studied but it does appear that the species is a “home stream spawner.” Basically, this means that individuals return to the rivers where they were born to carry out their own reproductive efforts. The Gulf sturgeon is a long-lived species. Scientists conservatively estimate the average lifespan of the species to be 25-30 years with the females living longer than the males. Some have speculated the females of the species might be capable of living for 100 years or more. These fish do occasionally jump and have actually struck and injured swimmers and boater when doing so.
I posit that at some point in the past a Gulf sturgeon, or a small group of them, ventured farther up the Mississippi River than would be typical in order to spawn. They found their way into the White River and reproduced. The fact that they live a long time could account for sightings over the decades. In addition, the fact that sturgeon return to the rivers where they were spawned would mean that a small number of these fish would continue to return to the White River year after year. That being the case, sightings of the White River monster could continue in perpetuity.
The fact that Gulf sturgeon are anadromous, are home stream spawners, live for a very long time, reach truly large sizes, do occasionally breach or jump from the water, are known to inhabit the Mississippi River for several months of the year, and are very unique and “prehistoric looking” in appearance make them my number one suspect in the mystery of the White River Monster.
There is no definitive answer as to what the White River monster might be. One thing is for sure, however, and that is many locals continue to believe it is there, somewhere in the river, waiting to be discovered.