The mysterious history of Champ
Mystery, legend, or myth?
Lake Champlain is the Adirondacks' largest lake, providing the perfect playground for boating, fishing, water sports and lake monsters. That's right, lake monsters. For centuries legends and alleged sightings of an enormous swimming monster have captured the imagination of locals, visitors, and even scholars.
In the beginning
The indigenous people that have long lived and hunted near Lake Champlain, the Abenaki and the Iroquois, have their own legends about a large creature inhabiting the lake, which looked like a large, horned serpent or giant snake. The Abenaki term for this creature is Gitaskog. Early in the 18th century, Abenakis warned French explorers about disturbing the waters of the lake, so as not to disturb the serpent. Samuel de Champlain, whom the lake is named after, is often erroneously credited with being the first European to sight Champ, but readings of his accounts show that he saw something near the St. Lawrence River. Nevertheless, his account of his sighting is of interest to anyone with an interest in lake monsters!
Champlain described what he saw like this: ". . . [T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them."
Historians think Champ is probably a garfish, a class that includes lake sturgeon, which still live in Lake Champlain today. Champlain's description of the creature sounds very much like a garfish, albeit much larger than usual.
The lake monster legend grows
The next famous account appears in the Plattsburgh Republican newspaper on Saturday, July 24, 1819. Captain Crum was aboard a scow on Bulwagga Bay the previous Thursday morning when he reported a black monster, about 187 feet long and with a head resembling a sea horse, that reared more than 15 feet out of the water. He claimed the monster he saw had three teeth, eyes the color of a "a pealed [sic] onion," a white star on its forehead and "a belt of red around the neck." This is a remarkable level of detail concerning an object that was, according to the witness, some 200 yards away.
1873 was a busy year for Champ. A New York Times story reported that a railroad crew had seen the head of an "enormous serpent" in Lake Champlain, with bright silvery scales that glistened in the sun. Both the men and the monster parted ways at that point.
In July that same year, Clinton County Sheriff Nathan H. Mooney reported an "enormous snake or water serpent" he thought was 25 to 35 feet long. Then in August, the steamship W.B. Eddy encountered Champ by running into it. The ship nearly turned over, according to the tourists on board.
Never one to miss a trick, showman P. T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 in 1873 for "hide of the great Champlain serpent to add to my mammoth World's Fair Show."
Another group sighting came in 1945, when passengers of the S.S. Ticonderoga claimed to have seen a creature.
Sightings heated up in the late 1900s - with photos!
By 1992, sightings totaled 180, with approximately 600 people claiming to have seen Champ all over the lake. Eager children crossing the lake by ferry often look for the lake monster, hoping for a sighting. A few people even managed to snap photos of what they claimed to be Champ. Much like his mythical relative at Loch Ness, Champ sightings and photos are much debated and analyzed.
The 21st century saw a new wave of sightings, which numbered in the double digits each summer and prompted interest from Japanese television, the Today Show, NBC's Unsolved Mysteries and Fox Network's Sightings. In 2003, the Discovery Channel did a special on "America's Loch Ness Monster" in the wake of three new sightings by June of that year. Champ has been written about in Discover magazine and in scholarly journals.
Safe haven for monsters
Although many people are skeptical of sightings, Champ is now protected by law on both sides of Lake Champlain, just in case.
- 1981 — Port Henry, New York, declares their waters a safe haven for Champ
- 1982 — The state of Vermont passes a House Resolution protecting Champ
- 1983 — In New York, both the state Assembly and the state Senate pass resolutions protecting Champ
Today, Champ is celebrated, whether he exists or not. In Vermont, a baseball team is known as the Lake Monsters, with a Champ mascot. A Champ statue sits by the water in Port Henry, NY, and images of the monster — looking cheerful and definitely not scary — appear throughout the area, at local businesses, on tshirts, in children's books, and more. A historic marker even sits on the shore in Clinton County, in honor of everyone's favorite lake monster.
Come to the Lake Champlain Region to learn more about this amazing, celebrated "monster."