H.R. Brinkerhoff was reading near the window of his second story officer’s quarters at Fort Sheridan one frigid, early spring afternoon when he observed a “very large” black speck amid the waves of Lake Michigan.
“Come out and look at this thing in the lake!” he shouted to his lieutenant, W.F. Blauvelt.
“What is it?” the lieutenant asked him.
“I don’t know,” Brinkerhoff said. “Come and see.”
It was a clear day in late March, 1893. The trees had yet to spring leaves, allowing the men an unobstructed view of the water. Still, it was hard to make out at first what it was they were looking at—until it drew nearer to shore.
“The creature poked its head up and we saw it plainly with our naked eyes and through our glasses,” Brinkerhoff later recalled to the Chicago Daily Tribune. “The head was very large, dark above, and light underneath. We could not see the features distinctly, but it looked like an alligator’s head.”
The captain described the creature as “benumbed or disabled,” and told a reporter that he and Blauvelt saw it become stuck in a patch of ice near the pier. “The effort seemed to revive it,” he said of the creature’s struggle to break free. “It disappeared, but quickly came to the surface again at the identical spot where we had first got a good view of it,” he continued. “It looked toward us for a second and, then, turning around, made its way directly out into the lake. It described almost a letter ‘S’ with its body in turning, and we got an excellent view of it.”
It was about thirty-feet long, he told associates, his enlisted men, and a Tribune reporter, who noted that some 200 spooked Fort Sheridan service members had agreed to abstain from alcohol in the wake of the incident.
“There is no chance of a mistake, Captain?” the reporter asked.
“We saw it,” Brinkerhoff replied. “Don’t know what it was, but we saw it.”
What Brinkerhoff and Blauvelt saw that day—or what they said they saw—was the sea serpent that Chicagoans have reported spotting for more than a hundred years. Unlike the Loch Ness monster, this creature has no name to distinguish it; the closest I could find in my research was a reference to the “Lake Ness” Monster, a moniker as nonsensical as it is derivative.
Invariably, it is described as “eel-like,” somewhere between thirty and sixty feet in length, with a reptilian head. An 1867 account described the creature as “retiring in habit”—prone, that is, to disappearing out of sight, quickly back under the water after breaching the surface. While local reporters from the 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century have dutifully reported residents’ sightings, they have done so with bemusement, a dubiety about as subtle as an elbow to the ribs.
And why not?
As a 1952 Tribune story noted, the “sea-serpent deception” had long been used in efforts to draw tourism to resort towns, seemingly with some degree of success. Months after one was spotted in 1904, the Tribune observed that “more people are using Lake Michigan as a summer resort than ever before.”
Then there’s the September 1934, sighting by Captain G.E. Stufflebeam of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a Navy-troop-transport-turned-Great Lakes passenger ship.
As Stufflebeam told it, he and his crew were about four miles offshore one night when lookout Donald Steele shouted, “Sea serpent, ahoy!”
“Where away?” he asked, according to the Tribune.
“Right over there, you dope,” Steele yelled at the captain.
“There it was,” Stufflebeam told the Tribune. “Wriggling and twisting around and swimming faster than the ship was going.”
Like Brinkerhoff’s men, who, upon hearing tell of the serpent, are said to have sworn off drink, the frightened passengers aboard Stufflebeam’s ship “threw a number of bottles away”—and then the serpent disappeared, heading toward Benton Harbor.
In 1903, a fisherman reported seeing a sea serpent in the lake, off of 22nd Street. But, the Tribune reported ninety years later, the creature had actually been a sea lion named Big Ben, escaped from the Lincoln Park Zoo.
In 1943, the self-described “oldest of the old-timers,” a man by the name of Charles “Pickles” Crager, told the paper of an incident in “the nineties”—the 1890s, of course—in which what some had believed to be a serpent in the lake was a large sea turtle which got loose while being shipped. “Things like pulling in sea monsters was always happening to me,” Pickles said, as he spun more yarns about the city gleaned from more than sixty years living in it.
Maybe it was the dubious nature of the stories, maybe it was the passage of time into a less superstitious era—but by the time Pickles got around to talking about it, the sea serpent seemingly came to be a creature of the past. The subject of an old man’s nostalgia. He hadn’t disappeared from the papers entirely. As the twentieth century wore on, though, press for the creature was less about sightings and more about the legends themselves. By the time our current century rolled around, talk of the monster had all but disappeared—banished to the depths by the troubles of our times. “Sea serpents always appear in those moments of human experience which are the despair of historians because they are dull,” a newspaper writer theorized in 1933, “and the joy of peoples because they are happy and carefree.” The era in which we live is hardly dull, our lives far from carefree. And—perhaps as a consequence, perhaps as a coincidence—the Lake Michigan sea serpent has swum just below the surface of the public imagination, a secondary character in the city and region’s folklore for decades, with little to no attention.
Until, that is, more recently.
I first became acquainted with the Lake Michigan sea serpent last summer, when a grainy video by a Michigan man made the rounds on social media. Purporting to be livestream of the shore in South Haven taken in forty-mile-per-hour winds, the video shows rough waves rushing up against the pier—and, in a corner, what looks to be a large, dark snake-like figure slithering through the current.
“What was caught on camera at the South Haven Pier?!” one incredulous headline about the viral video read. (“We may never really have an answer,” that story concluded.)
This, of course, is the kind of low-grade clickbait we’ve learned to ignore on the internet—or, at least, learned that we should ignore, but do not. And yet for me, it was an introduction to a creature that had once been a fixture of our area, but who has not endured the way other Chicago tall tales have. Any self-respecting Chicago raconteur can give you at least the gist of the Resurrection Mary legend—but who among us, save for our old friend Pickles, can tell you about our local denizen of the deep?
Down the serpent swell I went, sinking deeper and deeper into the local mythology. I scoured the Tribune archives for mentions of the monster, coming across sightings that dated as far back as the 1860s and as recently as the middle of the twentieth century. There were the crews of the tugboat Crawford and the propeller Skylark that reported a near-confrontation with the beast in 1867, “lashing the waves with his tail” off the coast of Evanston. There were the reports of a sea serpent, in 1895, making the rounds of various resorts along the lake over the course of several days that summer. And there was the Tribune reader who defended the “fabulous stories,” apparently so common in the papers as the weather warmed, as no mere “romance and superstition.”
“The public have become so accustomed to the periodical hoax upon this subject that the idea of its having a possibly solid foundation is entertained by very few persons,” the Tribune reader wrote in 1878. “And yet there is so much grave testimony to the appearance at various times in different parts of the ocean of a gigantic ‘monster,’ which observers have universally pronounced of serpent form, that there naturalists are inclined to grant that there may exist in the vast region of the sea some species of huge marine animal still unknown to science.”
That unknown—all that remains undiscovered under the water that covers most of our planet—has spawned thousands of years of myths and legends, from Leviathan of the Hebrew Bible to the sirens who sang to Odysseus in Homer’s masterpiece to Nessie herself.
Such monsters populated my childhood fantasies of adventure on the high seas. My grandfather, a real Pickles of a man, showed me “Jaws” when I was six, firmly establishing my perception that the ocean—which I wouldn’t see in person for another decade-and-a-half—was full of great and terrifying beasts. While numerous elementary-school science projects on the matter taught me that the great white is not necessarily the man-eating monster of film, trips to the Shedd Aquarium showed that the creatures that did exist were plenty fantastic on their own. The strangest, I knew, lived in the deepest parts of the ocean—far from Lake Michigan and the other midwestern lakes of my youth. But the muskies I’d see mounted on the walls of bait shops and supper clubs and rented cabins were a reminder that our own local lakes were home to some pretty extraordinary creatures themselves.
But Nemo, I was not, and soon my landlocked childhood gave way to a landlocked adulthood, and my pelagic daydreams dried up—just like my aspirations of being a cowboy or a 1930s bank robber. But the South Haven video and H.R. Brinkerhoff and Pickles and Big Ben the escaped sea lion reignited my fascination. Of course, the Lake Michigan sea serpent wasn’t real—but I wanted to seek it nonetheless. I wanted to see for myself a dark speck in the waves, knowing full well it was a log or a shadow or an escaped turtle or whatever, even as I privately wondered, in some small part of my brain, if maybe it wasn’t. The Lake Michigan sea serpent became my white whale, in a sense.
Of course, Ahab made a worthy adversary to Moby Dick, in part, because he had a ship with which to pursue him. I obviously had no such vessel with which to give chase to my slithery nemesis. Nor, I’m sad to say, did I know anybody with a boat to take me far out into Lake Michigan where the beast would surely dwell.
But that didn’t stop me from seeking the sea serpent out where I could. On a rented boat for a friend’s bachelor party last summer, I turned my attention from the city’s glossy skyline to the choppy waters below, hoping to spy something supernatural. On runs along the lake, I’d settle on the steps off Fullerton and stare out into the waves, the blue water blending with the blue sky. Through the winter into early spring, I plotted ways to get further out onto the lake, beyond the crowded beaches the serpent would surely shy away from, to the deeper parts where others had reported spotting it. The serpent legend had been borne of the washed-over maritime culture of this city and region; by chasing down the myth, I thought, I could perhaps get in touch with it.
I’d never get the chance.
The city would be shut down, and so would the lake shore, and any notion of spending our warm months anywhere but our homes vanished.
Writing about the lake and its legend would become a small, welcome diversion from the terrifying new reality of everyday life, though—like the movies I’d watch, the books I’d read, the bread I’d make—it would rarely distract for long. After the escapism, there’d be the inevitable return.
But before all that—before everything changed—I went over to Fort Sheridan, where Brinkerhoff and his lieutenant had claimed to see the monster. It was a cold day in early March, not too different probably from that day in 1893. Windy, but clear, with only the vaguest promise of mildness in the air to distinguish it from mid-winter.
I saw no serpent, needless to say.
Looking out over the water, though, in what remained of those comparatively carefree days that are the “despair of historians because they are dull,” I imagined sun and warm air and long days out on the lake, and thought, Soon.