Small Town Creature, Global Obsession - Hay Springs, NE TAP TO GET PODCAST
While Hay Springs, Nebraska, may not make the top of your list of places to travel for your next road trip, this small town may have a lot more going on than you might think. Sometimes, the smallest towns make the largest headlines, all thanks to the Alkali Lake Monster lurking amongst the shadows.
An Introduction to Hay Springs, NE
Nebraska, a state that for the past four consecutive years has been voted dead last in states tourists would like to visit. But for all the bad imagery of never-ending corn fields, Nebraska has plenty to offer, especially for those who enjoy the outdoors. From grassy meadows and stabilized sand hills to the pine ridge with its forested buttes – that is, tall cliffs with vertical rock walls, think devils tower. So it seems Nebraska has a lot more going on than what one might first conjure up when they hear the state’s name. Oh, and there’s one more thing Nebraska has up its sleeve: A semi-aquatic cryptid whose story rattled the small town of Hay Springs in the early 1920s and struck headlines around the globe.
I’m Cody, and I’m Elaine, and you’re touring cryptids across the atlas.
An Intro to the Most Famous Sighting of the Alkali Lake Monster
It was going to be a normal, run-of-the-mill camping trip. A chance to get away for a while and breath in some fresh air… Or at least, that’s what they thought.
J.A. Johnson and his two buddies set out from their hometown in Hay Springs, Nebraska, to a little 50-acre oasis named Alkali Lake out in what is now known as the Walgren Lake State Recreation Area. Alkali Lake was a serene location to get away. Close enough, but far away from it all. This was the perfect place to decompress for a few days, wish away the last moments of the Summer heat, and enjoy the company of good friends.
The three men skirted along the bank until they found the perfect spot to set up camp. Tents were erected, and before the night fell, the worries of the day to day were already long behind them. But that serenity wouldn’t last for long. No, before the night would end, J.A. Johnson and his friends would go from enjoying a weekend of solitude to being the center of an international obsession that still echoes from the village of Hay Springs, Nebraska, across the furthest corners of the United States and beyond.
Historical Sightings of the Alkali Lake Monster
North Western Nebraska already had its fair share of strange occurrences in the last couple of years. On September 16th, 1921, an article appeared in the Hay Springs news titled, “If It Isn’t a Whale It’s a Whaler of An Animal.”. Reports of something strange living out in Alkali lake had begun circulating ever since the cattle population started coming up short. Locals, left baffled by the disappearances of their livestock, began to murmur, and those murmurs began to spread.
As the mysterious happenings started to catch fire in Hay Springs, a follow-up article was released that October detailing a discussion with local Game and Wildlife officials. The article detailed how they plotted to catch this newly discovered monster that was terrorizing their town but fell short of finding a viable solution. If folks were to be believed and this thing was anything like the locals claimed they saw, the common consensus was that no one here had a contraption big enough to capture, much less contain whatever this thing was.
Sightings continued off and on for the next year, eventually bobbing back up to make headlines again in August of 1922. This “huge water animal,” as the papers described, was quickly becoming a common part of local conversation. But one evening in 1923, this local terror would grow legs and become international news.
J.A. Johnson and his two friends (Who’s names history has kindly disregarded) found themselves in the right place at the wrong time. As they sat around camp, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, something soon caught their eye that stood out in the strangest of ways. Down from their camp, they spotted something bobbing unnaturally through the water. Curiosity took hold, and soon the trio found themselves leaving behind the perceived safety of camp towards the shoreline to get a better look. The three men stood just 20 yards away as they took in the spectacle before them.
“It was forty feet long, dull gray/brown in color with a horn-like object between its eyes and nostrils,” Johnson Recounted to the Omaha World Herald. It faintly resembled an alligator but was much too large, and well, alligators don’t have horns. As the men stood in silence, flabbergasted at what they were seeing, the beast swam close enough to notice the three of them standing along the bank. It let out a “dreadful roar” before diving face first back into the water and disappearing under the murky water and out of their sight. Quickly, the crew ran back to camp, packed their belongings, and fled back to town to spread the news of what they had just encountered.
Stories like this in towns like that don’t just fade away. Echoes of the last two years, the disappearances of livestock, the strange things reported by the local papers. All the hearsay talked about over hedges with neighbors. These things add up, and Johnson’s story was the tipping point for a community that was fed up with being stolen from and hunted. No one wants to live with the constant worry that there’s a monster living just outside your town. How long would it choose to stay confined to the lake? How long until it grew tired of cattle and waterfowl? How long until it started hunting them?
Alkali Lake Monster in the Global Press
Articles began cropping up across the state of Nebraska and spreading across the United States, detailing the Alkali Lake monster’s reign of terror over the once peaceful town nestled in the great planes. One such story detailed a group of tourists who found themselves being chased by the monster after a day of swimming in the lake and agitating its home. Stories of locals growing more and more fed up with the Alkali Lake Monster became common. 1,900 miles away in St. Petersburg, Florida, an article in The Evening Independent went on to tell of a local Nebraskan fishing club who had purchased an arsenal of harpoons and a whaling gun. They had decided to take up arms against the creature to put an end to its reign of terror. But much to their demise, the monster escaped leaving the townsfolk scratching their heads, clueless on how to remove this living curse from their recreational waters.
The muffled cries of Hay Springs continued to catch wind from Florida and found their way across the Atlantic to the U.K. British readers found themselves entranced by a story published in The London Times of a small town plagued with, and I quote, “…a medieval monster which for three years has been terrifying the natives of the vicinity of Alkali Lake near the small town of Hay Springs, Nebraska, U.S.A.”.
The Myths Around the Alkali Lake Monster Develop
As time carried on, sightings of the Alkali Monster seemed to fade, but the monster’s supernatural abilities and sheer terror took on new life. In 1935, Marie Sandoz, an acclaimed western writer whose roots run deep in Nebraska, documented her father’s run-ins with the aquatic beast and his theories of how it came to be: “Alkali Lake, near Hay Springs… was inhabited by a sea monster – with a head like an oil barrel, shiny black in the moonlight. Some thought it a survival of the coal age. But… fundamentalists of the Flats knew better. The same devil that scattered the fossil bones over the earth to confound those of little faith could plant a sea monster among the sinners.” I guess blaming satan was as good an answer as any.
In July of 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project in Nebraska published their retelling of the legend in their Monthly Tall Tales publication: “Since long before the time of Old Jules, a monster sea-serpent has inhabited Alkali Lake a few miles southeast of Hay Springs. He is one of the few inland sea serpents in the world. Sometime down through the years, possibly to distinguish him from other sea serpents known for their phenomenal performances, he acquired the name of Giganticus Brutervious. So formidable is Giganticus that when he comes to the surface of the water, the earth trembles and the skies cloud over. Those who have been brave enough and strong enough to endure a glance at him say that his flashing green eyes spit fire, that with a head like a huge oil barrel, he looks like something one sees in a very bad dream, and that the least movement of his big pointed ears causes a tempest on the lake. As he rears and flips his powerful tail, the farmers become seasick for miles around. When he comes ashore to devour his daily ration of a dozen calves, a mist arises so thick that travelers cannot make their way through it, and his flashing eyes color the mist a murky green. The gnashing of his teeth sounds like clap after clap of thunder.”
Again in 1962, the story of the lake monster made front cover in the January issue of Outdoor Nebraska, this time, the retelling gives the creature even more supernatural abilities. The story reads, “One group of eastern innocents was traveling south out of Hay Springs when, without any cause, the clear sky clouded over and the heavens rumbled. Before the travelers knew it, they were surrounded by a mist so thick they couldn’t see where they were going. They decided the best thing to do would be to get back to Hay Springs. Bu the mist began to get green, and the earth was rolling beneath them, and their car was bouncing along at a terrible speed. When they finally escaped the horrible shroud, the dudes discovered that they had been bounced all the way (to the town of) Valentine.”
The article then goes on to describe how sighings have since dwindled due to a local native coming up with a plot to rid the town of this curse once and for all, to just ignore it, and maybe it would just go away. And according to legend, it worked. The monster grew bored with the town of Hay Springs and went dormant underground, waiting for the next group of curious townsfolk to make its life interesting once more, which flips the old adage on its head, maybe it’s not out of sight out of mind but rather, out of mind, out of sight.
When dealing with cryptids, it’s easy to forget where stories start and how they change over time. Stories grow like vines, quickly covering and consuming the trees they climb. People love a good tale, and the absurd often far outpaces the truth, even if the truth might just be a bit unbelievable itself. This is the case for many cryptid stories, the Alkali Lake Monster included. But nothing shows this more than understanding exactly how this tale hopped the metaphorical fence and became such a huge story across the U.S. and beyond.
Let’s rewind back to the early 1920s when the Alkali Lake Monster was still just a rumor being traded around the local diners and church potlucks. As word began to travel, a man named John G. Maher caught wind of the local happenings. Maher, an esteemed businessman, politician, and veteran, as well as a local Nebraskan, overheard these rumors, and he had an idea.
As a long-time sensationalist writer for numerous papers, Maher knew how to sell a story. He knew what the people wanted and what the people wanted was something exciting, a little dangerous, and often, something so absurd that it couldn’t be real… so absurd that it often wasn’t real at all. This was a man who created a “petrified man” crafted out of cement, then buried it near the town of Chardron, Nebraska, for archeologists to find. (And when I say Petrified Man, Think petrified wood but a human.) This false fossil human was so well crafted it was deemed to be authentic upon its uncovering and taken on exhibition to be displayed across the country.
On another occasion, Maher fancied getting in on the healing springs trend, so he loaded down a few sacks of soda powder and sunk them into a local hot spring. As the waters began to bubble, he took record of his ‘new discovery’ and wrote about it in his papers to stir up his curious readers.
Once, he convinced many of his fellow Nebraskan’s that the British Navy had infiltrated the great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and was traveling up into the heartland of the U.S. to enact vengeance on Irish Immigrants for their support of the Irish Republic.
So in case, you couldn’t tell, John G. Maher has a knack for telling and selling a good story, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us. And as I am sure you are expecting, that’s exactly where our beloved lake monster comes in.
As the rumors around Lake Alkali spread, Maher took those rumors and ran with them. In 1923 everything came to a head when Maher tipped off newspapers across the U.S. that there was a monster terrorizing upstate Nebraska. Before you could say Giganticus Brutervious, Tall tales were spun out of hearsay to create the stories that are still being told today.
These stories sparked an influx of interest in the town and the monster. People from all over flocked to Hay Springs to turn a quick profit from the success of the published story. False witnesses began sharing their versions of the tale in hopes of striking the modern equivalency of going viral. They shared encounter stories, offering up their own version of evidence. One person in the 1950s went as far as to photograph an aquatic salamander next to a toy jeep and pass it off as a photo of the Alkali Lake Monster terrorizing its next victim as they drove away.
These tall tales that sprung up like weeds around the original story secured John G. Maher a spot in local history as the mastermind behind one of the longest-running hoaxes in American history and gave rise to an entire industry surrounding this legendary aquatic monster. But that leaves us with one major plot hole unanswered: If most of what we know about the Alkali Lake Monster is a hoax, what about the sightings before 1923?
Attempting to Debunk the Alkali Lake Monster
The Alkali lake monster – The Walgren Lake Monster – Giganticus Brutervious – No matter the name you choose to call it, one thing stands for certain, the story of a monster hiding out in a relatively small lake in Northwestern Nebraska seems to be a bit of a stretch. A number of people have attempted to present evidence to prove the creature’s actual existence, but nothing thus far has offered any tangible proof. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. When a place this small gains this kind of attention, often there’s no going back.
Some have claimed that the Native American people have shared stories of an ancient monster that calls the lake its home. Some say the Native people have known of this creature far before the arrival of the white man, but these accounts have never been verified by historians or by the local Natives. Then there was the drought. In 1890, just thirty years before the first sightings of the monster, Alkali lake was parched to nothing more than a shallow puddle. Not much real estate for a 40-foot aquatic being to live in just three decades later.
But as we have seen from the original stories, the Alkali Lake Monster is only semi-aquatic. It can travel on land to hunt cattle, so maybe it migrated here from somewhere else? Or maybe the water level receding and then filling back up caused it to wake from its ancient slumber? Maybe we are just one bad drought away from the Alkali Lake Monster’s return… But let’s not think about that. We wouldn’t want to wake it early.
The Alkali Lake monster may have gone into hiding, but I have one more story to share with you that might just connect with our friend over at the lake. But I warn you, this story doesn’t have the luxury of being 100 years ago. No, this one happened just a handful of years back in 2013.
FINAL STORY: Possible Monster Tracks
She couldn’t explain it when she saw it. Clare Burke was left nearly speechless one late Summer day as she was on her way to tend her garden as usual. As she approached her vegetables, something caught her eye. There in the mud were footprints, or rather, what seemed like footprints due to how they were spaced. But these were no ordinary footprints. The stride between them couldn’t be made by any person, not to mention that the size of the prints were 8 inches across. And these feet were not what you would expect from a human. They were rounded and without any major indents where toes should be.
Clare snapped a few photos and sent them to her family, who have a long history of hunting the local Nebraskan countryside, but they were all left speechless. Next, she sought help from the local Marshal, who came out to take a look, but he was left stumped as well. His long history on a farm and his love for horseback riding gave him the perspective to see that this wasn’t any mammal he’d ever seen. These prints were far too large to be a horse, cow, or even moose, and since there weren’t any noticeable toes, that eliminated the possibility of a bear.
The Marshal Advised Clare to send the photos off to the state conservation officer, but upon receiving them, they couldn’t make heads or tales of what they saw either. Clare went on to state that whatever the thing appeared to have come into her garden attempted to eat a pumpkin and a cucumber but didn’t like the taste, so it spat them out. Then the tracks showed it went back into the woods where it came from.
Luckily the tracks had dried up, and no more fresh ones had taken their place, but one night later that summer, Clare and her husband woke to a strange sound coming from the neighbor’s property. Clare’s husband hurried over and shined his flashlight out the window, but all he saw were the neighbor’s trees and the stillness of the night. He closed the blinds and clicked off the light, but as he made his way back to bed, he heard it one last time; outside their bedroom window, he heard a loud, dreadful roar echoing as it faded off into the darkness.
Preview for Next Episode’s Cryptid
This episode of Cryptids Across the Atlas was written by Cody Johnston, With music by Braille Atlas.
Join us next time as we take a detour to the coast of Australia and take a hike into this beautiful country’s wild rainforests. But just a word of warning: A bad sunburn isn’t the only thing out there that might leave you a bit red and rosy.
“Nebraska’s Lake Monster- Giganticus Brutervious” https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/flashback-friday-nebraskas-lake-monster-giganticus-brutervious
“Cryptid Profile: The Alkali Lake Monster (AKA The Walgren Lake Monster)” https://pinebarrensinstitute.com/cryptids/2018/8/18/cryptid-profile-the-alkali-lake-monster-aka-the-walgren-lake-monster
“Walgren Lake Monster” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walgren_Lake_Monster
“Alkali Lake Monster” https://cryptidz.fandom.com/wiki/Alkali_Lake_Monster
“Mari Sandoz” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Sandoz
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.