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Legend of the Bear Lake Monsters — yes, in the plural

Editor's note: Portions of this have been previously published.

Utah and Idaho’s own rough equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster are the Bear Lake Monsters (yes, multiple monsters reported in the original news report).

Sightings date back to Native American legends and were first reported by pioneer settlers in the summer of 1868 — in the plural sense — since the first sighting included 10 different creatures at the same time — a significant sidelight not commonly mentioned.

“Monsters of Bear Lake” was an Aug. 5, 1868, headline in the Deseret News. Correspondence from Charles C. Rich, namesake of Rich County and apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comprised this initial monster report. It was given almost five years after settlers had first arrived there.

The Bear Lake Monster reference is highly significant, coming 65 years before even the famed Loch Ness Monster became known worldwide (though some Loch sightings may date back to the seventh century).

“All lakes, caves and dens have their legendary histories,” Rich wrote. "Tradition loves to throw her magic wand over beautiful dells and lakes, and people them with fairies, giants and monsters of various kinds. Bear Lake has also its own monster tale to tell, and when I have told it, I will leave you to judge whether or no ('not') its merits are merely traditionary.”

Rich continued: “The Indians say there is a monster animal that lives in the Lake that has captured and carried away Indians while in the Lake swimming; but they say it has not been seen by them for many years, not since the buffalo inhabited the valley. They represent it as being of the serpent kind, but having legs about eighteen inches long on which they sometimes crawl out of the water a short distance on the shore. They also say it spirts water upwards out of its mouth.”

Rich’s 1868 newspaper account continued:

“Since the settlement of this valley, several persons have reported seeing a huge animal of some kind that they could not describe; but such persons have generally been alone when they saw it, and but little credence has been attached to the monster, and until this summer the ‘monster question’ had about died out.”

He also reported: “On Sunday last (July 19, 1868), N.C. Davis and Alan Davis of St. Charles and Thomas Slight and J. Collings of Paris with six women, were returning from Fish Haven, when about midway from the latter named place to St. Charles (all in today’s borders of Idaho), their attention was suddenly attracted to a peculiar motion or wave in the water, about three miles distant. The lake was not rough, only a little disturbed by a light wind. Mr. Slight says he distinctly saw the sides of a very large animal that he would suppose to not be less than ninety feet in length. … It was going south and all agreed that it swam with a speed almost incredible to their senses. Mr. Davis says he never saw a locomotive travel faster, and thinks it made a mile a minute, easy.”

The 1868 report also stated: “In a few minutes after the discovery of the first, a second one followed in its wake; but seemed to be much smaller, appearing to Mr. Slight about the size of a horse. A larger one followed this, and so one until four large ones, in all, and six small ones had run southward out of sight.”

Rich also reported: “About three weeks ago (likely early July of 1868), Mr. S.M. Johnson, who lives in the east side of the lake at a place called South Eden (about half-way north along the Utah side of the lake), was going to the Round Valley settlement, six miles to the south of this place and when about half way he saw something in the lake, which at the time, he thought to be a drowned person. The road being some distance from the water’s edge he rode to the bench, and as the waves were running pretty high he thought it would soon wash into shore. In a few minutes two or three feet of some kind of animal that he had never seen before were raised out of the water.”

The report continued: “He did not see the body, only the head and what he supposed to be part of the neck. It had ears or bunches on the side of its head nearly as large as a pint cup. The waves at times would dash over its head, when it would throw water from its mouth or nose. It did not drift landward but appeared stationary, with the exception of turning its head. Mr. Johnson thought a portion of the body must be lie on the bottom of the lake or it would have drifted with the action of water. This is Mr. Johnson’s version as he told me.”

Rich next wrote that the next day three women spotted a similar monster in the same place along the lake that was “very large and say it swam much faster than a horse could run on land.”

“These recent discoveries again revived the ‘monster question,’” Rich reported. “Those who had seen it before brought in their claims anew, and many people began to think this story was not altogether moonshine.”

These initial sightings birthed the legend of the Bear Lake Monsters. There have been more sightings over the decades, but most afterward involved a single creature. Also, total reports diminished significantly after 1915. In fact, the most recent was likely in 2002, when a Bear Lake Valley businessman reported a sighting.

There are many other “Bear Lakes” in the nation, but strangely, only the Utah-Idaho version appears to boast monster legends.

Lynn Arave worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. He is a retired Deseret News reporter/editor, from 1979-2011. His email is lra503777@gmail.com. His Mystery of Utah History blog is at mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com.