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Toronto Urban Legends: The Great Serpent of Lake Ontario

Every lake should have a monster, and Lake Ontario is no exception.

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

A sea serpent, spotted off the coast of Massachusetts in 1639. Image courtesy of the {a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sea_serpent_Cape_Ann_1639.jpg"}Wikimedia Commons{/a}.

Toronto summers can be hot and sticky, and it’s a pet peeve for residents that local beaches are sometimes off-limits to swimmers due to high levels of pollution. But what if it’s not just water quality that keeps us from frolicking in the waves? What if the powers-that-be don’t want us to know that the waters of Lake Ontario harbour something far more sinister than e coli—say, a gigantic monster with razor-sharp teeth and a taste for human flesh?

We can’t prove that this is what’s happening [Editor's Note: This is not what's happening.], but we do know that there’s been a long history of creature sightings in the waters off our shores.

Centuries ago, Seneca legend told of a huge beast called Gaasyendietha that inhabited the depths of the lake. The description of the creature as “serpent-like” is consistent with later accounts—although it, unlike other rumoured Lake Ontario water monsters, supposedly had the ability to fly and shoot fire from its mouth.

When European settlers arrived, they started seeing things in the lake, too.

On August 14, 1829 the Kingston Gazette and Religious Advocate reported that children playing on the beach at Grantham (near present day St. Catharines) had spotted a “hideous water snake, or serpent, of prodigious dimensions.”

Then as now, entertainment value often trumped accuracy in the news business, and this unsubstantiated story from bored kids was accepted without question. The paper closed with the cheerfully credulous observation that the creature was “not the first one of the kind that has been seen in Lake Ontario; and…there can be no doubt of the existence of such monsters in our inland seas.”

Three years later, the monster had migrated east. The Oswego Palladium reported on July 1 1833 that Captain Abijah Kellogg and others on the schooner Polythermus had spied a 175-foot blue serpent as they made their way into Kingston Harbour. The creature had no obvious head, but rather tapered off at either end like a giant earthworm. It made a leisurely fly-by of the ship before undulating its way up the St. Lawrence.

The monster must have liked Kingston, because it turned up again at nearby Gull Beach in 1842, surprising “two boys named McConnel” (it was apparently common in the early 19th century to encourage kids to play unattended by the lake; families were large and food scarce, so children were essentially disposable except at harvest time).

The pair ran to tell their father, who did the only reasonable thing and summoned a man with a rifle to kill it. Happily their attempt at eradicating a just-discovered species failed, and the still unnamed creature—described as brown, and 30-40 feet long with a large head—disappeared back into the depths.

You may be saying, this is all well and good, but what it’s got to do with Toronto? Shut up and be patient, we’re building to that.

After a thirty-year hiatus, our sea serpent once again reared its head. On June 25, 1872, the Globe reported that residents of Olcott New York, (directly across the lake from the proto-GTA) witnessed a bellowing monster leap fifty feet out of the water before making its way northward, out of sight.

By August 1877, the creature had moved still closer to Hogtown. It showed up in Burlington Bay, where it was described by fishermen as resembling a log with a mouth like a crocodile. One angler claimed that the monster had snapped off his oar, leaving visible tooth marks. The keen journalists of the Kingston Daily News noted dryly that, “We give the story as gathered for what it is worth, and leave the reader to investigate for himself.”

On August 22, 1882, the beast finally made its Toronto debut. An account in the Toronto Mail, (reprinted in the New York Times) reported a serpent sighting in the water near Fort York. It was described by three witnesses as fifty feet long and as wide around as a man, bluish-grey coloured, with stiff bristles covering its body.

The behemoth spent some time basking in the sun, then snorted derisively at the assembled landlubbers and swam off into the distance…and into history. Except for a few unverifiable internet accounts (including a man who may have seen a six-foot eel-thing near Scarborough in 1968), the creature had vanished.

In 1934 something strange surfaced near Kingston, but the unimaginatively named “Kingstie” was revealed in 1979 to have been a hoax.

Is there a monster in the lake? The descriptions over the years have been inconsistent, with colour ranging from blue to brown, a large head or no head at all, bristled or bald, teeth like an alligator or toothless.

Some of the sightings could be attributable to fish known to live in the lake. Lake sturgeon can grow up to 3 metres in length, although the largest on record in Ontario is about 1.75 metres. American lake eels, also native to the lake, have an appropriate serpentine appearance but generally top out at just over a metre.

So it may be that Leviathan never roamed our lake, or has since died, or made its way to deeper, less polluted waters. But it’s preferable to think that the monster is a real thing that we’ll see again, maybe this time rampaging ashore to spit fire and wreak righteous havoc among the beach-smokers, boomboxers, litterbugs, and other anti-social elements that infest Toronto’s waterfront. Only time will tell.

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