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Crystal Beach Sea Serpent of 1896: Water beast or marketing stunt?

People have been seeing “monsters” in Lake Erie as far back as there have been people along the lakeshore.

Through the 1880s and 1890s, several instances of sea monsters were reported in the Buffalo area — but skepticism ran high when sightings in Angola and Silver Creek wound up being clearly intended to gin up business for lakeside resorts in those places.

However, the reports of a giant sea serpent at Crystal Beach in May 1896 were different.

The almost unbelievable firsthand accounts came from “three persons who have enjoyed a reputation for veracity,” according to the Buffalo Enquirer, including Civil War veteran Capt. Lina Beecher.

Beecher, along with his wife and a neighbor, “declare they saw a sea serpent 40 feet long in the waters of Crystal Beach not more than 100 yards from shore,” according to the Enquirer.

Again, tales of “sea serpents” were nothing new around Buffalo, and depending on which of the handful of Buffalo’s daily newspapers you might have been reading, your thoughts on the Crystal Beach sea snake might have been different.

The Enquirer offered a straight-reporting version of events in the immediate aftermath, but as the days wore on, the editorial staff there became leery of the story as their crosstown rival, the Buffalo Courier, continued to gin up the account. The Courier sold quite a few papers as the great promoter of the sea serpent stories that had appeared over the previous decade, and the version of the Crystal Beach sighting that appeared in the Courier was much more tantalizing.

“The hour was sunset. The luminary was already half hidden behind the dark crown of wood on Point Albino. Here and there, a bird was chanting the vespers. The nearer trees, clad in the palest most delicate of green, stood against a background of ancient pines and hemlocks whose foliage was black by contrast. The broad blue lake lay sooth and beautiful, the last of the winter’s ice disappearing far to the eastward in miniature bergs which glistened under the dying sunshine. The tokens of spring were everywhere to be perceived.

“What more fitting moment for the imperious Serpent of the Unsalted Seas to break of his hibernating dreams in the ooze of old Erie’s bed?”

The Courier had developed the myth of a sea serpent living in the lake to a point where sightings began to mimic the extensive backstory the paper had created.

“The habit of the creature, the Courier has always maintained, to remain in the deeps during the day, coming to the surface to sport at dawn and evening.”

When first reported, many thought the sighting by a Civil War army officer provided the most credible evidence of a Lake Erie monster to date — but there was still the expectation that somehow a different version of the truth might be borne out.

The skeptic’s final answer about whether there had been a sea snake in Fort Erie came within five weeks of that original sighting, when Capt. Beecher, who had reported the monster during the first week of May, announced during the second week of June that his new single-line railway between Crystal Beach and Ridgeway was open for business.

Beecher’s sighting was not the last of the 1896 tourist season. Only a week after the Fort Erie railway opened, six Western New Yorkers told the Courier about their sighting at Woodlawn Beach. Among them was the wife of the operator of the railway that took passengers to and from the Woodlawn Beach amusement park.

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