The legend of Bessie


Oct 1, 2007

Tales surface of monster living in Lake Erie

PUT-IN-BAY -- When Bob Bartolotta sailed on Lake Erie, he often saw what appeared to be a long, thin creature swimming through the water.

Bartolotta, a student in the 1970s at Ohio State University Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island near Put-in-Bay, watched the object hopefully, waiting to see if the snakelike head of a sea monster would emerge.

"I never saw anything like that," said Bartolotta, Cleveland Museum of Natural History outdoor education coordinator. "It always turned out to be a dead tree."

Many who have seen similar phenomena on the lake, however, believe the undulating masses could be South Bass Bessie, also known as Lake Erie Bessie and Lake Erie Larry.

She is a Lake Erie legend, a possible cousin to the Loch Ness Monster. Some think she is a plesiosaurus, a Jurassic marine reptile that has survived thousands of years, said Len Tieman, owner of Prehistoric Forest dinosaur park in Danbury Township and creator a life-sized plesiosaurus featured at his park.

But Joe Hannibal, Cleveland Museum of Natural History paleontologist, said plesiosauruses never lived in this area. They were extinct 65 million years before Ice Age glaciers created Lake Erie, he said.

"If one were found, it would be a spectacular scientific find," Hannibal said.

Plesiosaurus fossils have been found in Kansas and other parts of western North America that were once covered in water, he said. The animals had long necks, a rounded body with flippers and sharply pointed teeth for eating fish.

But lack of scientific evidence hasn't hurt the story or dampened sightings throughout the decades. Sea monsters have been folklore around the world, he said.

"The early newspapers in the 1800s would have reports of sea serpents, even in Lake Erie," he said. "My theory is people need to think there is something wonderful and mysterious out there. It would be fun if there were one."

Sea monsters were the predecessor to UFOs, he said.

"The sightings went down when flying saucers started being sighted (in the 1950s, '60s and '70s)," he said. "They became a craze."

In the late '80s and early '90s, people again began reporting spotting Bessie. Bartolotta attributes the spike to an increase in the number recreational boaters on the lake as Port Clinton became known as the Walleye Capital of the World.

The Put-in-Bay Gazette, South Bass Island's monthly newspaper, helped fuel the story when editor Kendra Koehler took a photo of a log and presented it in the paper as a sea monster.

"It was hilarious," Koehler said. "It was kind of a little hoax. Newspapers and TV crews went on with it for about six months."

Since then, sightings have dwindled. Koehler, Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce Director Maggie Beckford and Ottawa County Visitors Bureau Director Larry Fletcher said they often hear people talk about the monster, but no one has reported seeing her recently.

"People do love the monster story," Koehler said.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Marblehead Station, has not received any Bessie reports since Commander J. Franklin took over 14 months ago, Franklin said. The station does not keep records of sea monster sightings, so he did not know when the last report occurred.

"I'm sure a few people have claimed to see Lake Erie Larry," Beckford said. "I just don't know if they were sober at the time."