White River Monster long-lived Ozarks story

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In 1937, the nation watched as hundreds of people swarmed Newport, Ark., in search of the White River Monster. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)

The Ozark hills are filled with legends that go deep into the region’s history. One particular story, however, comes from a different type of deep: The White River, where ol’ Whitey — a Loch-Ness-style monster — has long been said to live.

No one knows for sure when Whitey, technically known as the White River Monster, made his first appearance. However, “official” sightings have been on the record since the early 1900s.

In the years since, the mysterious thing “with the hide of a wet elephant” has been perceived differently. Some people thought it was an overturned boat. Others were convinced it was an oversized fish. Arkansas state legislators officially established its legendary status in 1973 when they created the White River Monster Sanctuary and Retreat where supposed sightings were common.

After all, as one newspaper put it, “there aren’t that many authentic monsters left in state waters.”

Regardless of who or what monster was (or is), the legend continues.

“There is still interest in the story,” says Vicky Schoeneweis, park interpreter at Johnson State Park in Newport, Ark., who gives presentations on the monster. “I’m not necessarily a believer, but I’m not a disbeliever, either. We don’t know all that’s on the Earth.” 

Early sightings

The day must have been a scary one in 1915 when the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes that the first sighting was reported.

While later reports are scattered, it seems the monster came to fame again in 1937, when something strange was reported by a number of people.

“Somewhere in its depths, according to a half-dozen eyewitnesses including a plantation owner Bramlett Bateman, is the ‘monster’ which on rare intervals rises to the surface, floats silently for a few minutes and then submerges to make its presence known only by occasional strings of bubbles,” printed Michigan’s News-Palladium paper in July 1937.

Soon, the water where sightings were seen became a tourist attraction. Newspapers across the country and around the world gave updates on the monster and locals’ efforts to catch it. The community — and the rest of the world — was anxious to solve the mystery of the monster that some estimated between 600 to 1,500 pounds, and up to three cars in length.

It seems part of the efforts were led by the local chamber of commerce, despite their staunch denials of doing anything for publicity gains. One claim is found in the St. Louis Star and Times newspaper:

“The chamber of commerce — ‘This certainly is not a publicity stunt’ — built a fence around the search area on one side of the river, erected a booth and tacked up a sign reading:

‘Admission 25 cents’

Regardless of motive, the people were drawn. Many, it seems, were more terrified of missing the monster than being harmed by it — although some did come armed.

“More and more of the curious, many of them bringing guns or cameras, came to the scene,” printed the Moberly Monitor-Index newspaper on July 9, 1937. “One man even brought a machine gun — but the state game and fish commission has ruled out use of guns and explosives in the investigation.”

Local leaders also led efforts to solve the mystery. At one point, W.E. Penix, state toll bridge collector, led the charge to round up all available rope to create a giant net to catch the beast of the deep.

“Penix said he would enlist operators of several motorboats to help him handle the net,” printed the Hope Star newspaper. “He said he did not expect to land the ‘monster’ if it was as big as reported but hoped to entangle it long enough to enable rivermen to identify it definitely.”

Eventually, the thoughtful chamber of commerce decided it was time to solve the mystery once and for all. The organization hired another diver — this time, former Navy diver C.R. Brown — to come in and attempt to find the monster. (One source says the admission fee was used to help pay for his efforts.)

The Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1937 (Newspapers.com)

Around July 23, the hunt commenced — for public good, not publicity.

“All Newport stores arranged to close at noon today in honor of the monster hunt,” reported The Evening Citizen newspaper in Ontario, Canada. “Enterprising persons constructed a dance floor near the eddy and announced an orchestra would play for dancers as long as the hunt lasted.”

“The chamber of commerce, sponsoring the hunt to refute charges that the monster idea was a publicity scheme, rigged up a loud speaking system through which Brown related his adventures from the bottom of the river,” printed the St. Petersburg Times on July 24.

Numbers vary on just how many people were witnesses that day; one report says 300, another 500. Regardless of how many, there was a moment when all eyes thought they’d seen what they came for.

“Some of the approximately 500 spectators at the first day’s search thought for a moment they had seen the ‘monster,'” reported The Weekly Town Talk in Louisiana. “Closer examination disclosed the object to be a dead hog floating downstream.”

Before the ‘real’ monster could be found, the dive wrapped up. Rains, causing muddy water, and an accident to the diver’s air valve cut the hunt short.

“(Brown’s) diving suit inflated and he bobbed to the surface like a cork when the accident occurred,” reported The Daily Times in Iowa on July 24. “To make his day worse, he also was stuck in the bottom mud for a time and had to be dislodged.”

On top of all of that, he wasn’t the only one seeking a meeting with the monster.

“A rival, David Smythe, river fisherman, descended in a homemade apparatus consisting of an old gasoline tank, rubber hose and bicycle pump manned from a boat. He reported no success.”

Shortly thereafter, the monster disappeared. Believers, though, had an obvious explanation.

“Those who still retained faith in the existence of a ‘monster’ were quick to theorize that so much hub-bub on the river bank had frightened the monster away,” printed the Kerrville Times paper in Texas.

“With a band blaring from a hastily erected dance hall beside the river, sightseeing planes zooming over the stream, and concessionaires hawking their offerings, it was easy for them to believe the poor fish had sought quieter and more congenial haunts in lower reaches of the river.”

“Nothing more was seen or heard of the White River monster in Arkansas after a posse set out after it, presumably with guitars,” printed a newspaper in Pennsylvania on Aug. 12.

The mystery is solved (maybe)

In the end, the town didn’t need expert divers to find an explanation for the White River Monster.

Less than three years later, one solution made sense when two local brothers caught a 220-pound fish — and if seeing is believing, locals were able to decide for themselves if they thought it was the real deal.

“The ‘monster,’ which is nine feet long and measures 11 inches between the eyes, was placed on exhibition in front of Bob’s meat market,” reported the Baxter Bulletin in January 1940.

It’s possible that “resolution” was just too much for one local man to keep quiet. Less than three months later, another fellow came forward with a different story. It’s preserved in a Bulletin article from March 1940:

“The ‘monster,’ it seems, was the scheme of a shell digger to frighten competitors away from a cache of valuable shells he had located.

“The fisherman discovered a bed of ‘sand shells,’ more valuable than ordinary mussel shells because they are exported to be made into knife handles, ear rings and novelties. To frighten away other fishermen and shell diggers, he overturned a scow (boat), hitched it to a set of wires, tied one end to roots hidden under the water bank.

“He started the story of the monster in the river. When curious fishermen came down to the river to investigate, the man would slip into the bushes and pull the scow to the top of the water. If a crowd was on hand, the ‘monster’ would not appear, because the schemer feared his scheme would be discovered.”

But even then, the monster’s story wasn’t gone.

Later sightings

Around 30 years later, the monster was back: The sightings started again, reports noting something with a gray horn sticking out of the water.

“Later, a trail of three-toed, fourteen-inch prints was found in the White River area,” notes the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Crushed vegetation and broken trees were evidence that something large had passed by, and it was assumed that the tracks were Whitey’s.”

The next year, legislators took the matter into their own hands. A bill was  passed in 1973 that created the White River Monster Refuge and Sanctuary, now tied to Jacksonport State Park. 

“(A group of locals) also plans to declare a song, by Timbo’s Jimmy Driftwood, concerning the monster, as the official ‘Refuge and Sanctuary anthem,” printed the Northwest Arkansas Times in an editorial in July 1972.

Schoeneweis, the park interpreter, hasn’t ever heard of the anthem, so it’s doubtful that claim came to fruition.

But she does know that people still appreciate the story. She offers presentations and tours she gives on Whitey, even though sightings haven’t been reported since the 1970s. Today, she says the legend lives on more for novelty than hard-and-fast belief. 

“Most people today are doing it for fun,” she says of the events at the park.

But what was the thing that people saw way back when? Even today, no one knows for sure, Schoeneweis says.

It could’ve been a log. It could’ve been a sea creature that ended up in the river by mistake from warmer waters, such as an alligator. Maybe it was a very large snapping turtle. Perhaps it was a giant gar, which can grow to 12 feet in length.

“They’re definitely scary,” says Schoeneweis. 

Regardless of if it’s there or what it is, though, the park is still a refuge for the White River Monster.

The story is especially recognized at Christmas, when the park displays a decoration about him on the nearby water.

“He floats out there on the lake throughout the Christmas season,” says Schoeneweis. 

The refuge status, however, is something Schoeneweis reminds visitors of all year long. She reiterates the fact that people are legally obligated to do it no harm — but that they should most definitely do something else if they see a creature from the deep. 

“Grab a camera, because proof is good,” she says.  

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“220-pound gar may be White River monster,” The Baxter Bulletin, Jan. 12, 1940

“500 watch diver in monster quest,” The Weekly Town Talk, July 31, 1937

“Arkansas town takes a holiday to hunt monster,” St. Louis Star and Times, July 24, 1937

“Armed diver goes into river to hunt ‘monster,'” The News-Palladium, July 22, 1934

“Believes ‘monster’ is huge catfish,” The Evening Citizen, July 22, 1937

“Diver fails to find Arkansas river monster,” Kerrville Times, Aug. 5, 1937

“Diver finds big catfish but no monster in river,” St. Petersburg Times, July 24, 1937

“Diver to hunt monster,” Nebraska State Journal, July 18, 1937

“Famed ‘White River Monster’ disclosed to be a hoax,” Baxter Bulletin, March 1, 1940

“Refuge sought,” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 10, 1972

“River ‘monster’ is an old boat,” Moberly Monitor-Index, July 9, 1937

“Rope net devised to catch monster,” Hope Star, July 13, 1937

“They pass a bill,” Las Cruces Sun-News, Feb. 22, 1973

“Valve trouble and mud hamper hunt for river monster,” The Daily Times, July 24, 1937

Whatever happened to the White River Monster?” Sam Uptegrove, The Christian County Headliner News, April 12, 2017

“White River yields a 200-pound Gar fish,” Cassville Republican, Jan. 25, 1940