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HAHN: Conway lake monster: believable or not believable?

May 23, 2011

Almost everyone has heard about the Loch Ness monster, but did you know that Arkansas has a lake monster too? More than one, in fact.
Work was started in the late 1940s and by the time Lake Conway was stocked with fish and boaters were beginning to spend time on its waters, rumors of the “Lake Conway monster” began to circulate through the town.
The Lake Conway monster story sounds a lot like the Fouke monster story, but at that time, the Fouke monster hadn’t made its appearance yet. And the Conway creature was noted for its terrible odor. It sounds very much like what is called a skunk ape in other parts of the South.
My boyfriend at the time was a local resident ­— “town boy” was what we called local students. He loved to fish, and his family had a boat they kept at the lake. We often went out after class and he fished while I searched the shore for evidence of monsters. While I did not see a monster, I learned an important life lesson: Fishing and monster hunting are very boring pastimes.
Stories of monster sightings were frequent when the lake first opened, but dwindled away to nothing by the 1970s, leading many people to believe they were products designed by the local Chamber of Commerce.
Similar monster stories currently circulate about Lake Ouachita in the Montgomery-Garland County area. Named for the rugged mountain range that makes up the area, the countryside is an ideal location for monster hunting.
According to state geologists, the Ouachita Mountain area was part of the first super-continent to exist during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (about 250 million years ago), before the continents were separated into their current configuration. You can still find many fossils of sea life that flourished in the shallow ocean beaches areas that once covered the southern part of the United States.
It is not hard to imagine ape-like creatures still living in these wilderness areas, and there are many stories of sightings and contacts with them. One local man has reported observing Big Foot (What is the plural of this word? Bigfeet? Bigfoots?) mothers and their babies along the shores of the lake. Other sightings are reported every year.
But aside from the Fouke Monster, the most famous Bigfoot in monster annals, Arkansas’ oldest monster legend is the White River Monster. This critter was first sighted about 1915, but was mostly ignored until around 1937 when a local plantation owner announced that he had seen a strange creature with gray skin about the width of a car and three cars in length in the waters of the river.
His story stirred the community to try to create a huge net to catch the creature. The net was never completed because the group ran out of money before it was finished. A diver was enlisted to do an underwater search, but he didn’t find any evidence of monsters either.
The legend endured. I first heard about it in 1950 in folklore classes, but could find no current reports of its activities. Then in the early 1970s it was seen again. Described as being gray in color, it was said to have a big horn sticking out of the middle of its forehead. It was also said be 20 feet long and have a spiny back like an alligator.
Someone found a trail of three-toed prints along the river’s edge. This enhanced the excitement of the residents of the area, so their state representative, a man named Robert Harvey, proposed legislation creating a stretch of the river a “monster refuge.” It is now illegal to harm the creatures in the refuge area.
“Whitey,” as he has been dubbed, has not been seen in recent years, but interest in his or her activities is still high. Various theories of what kind of creature Whitey is range from a huge fish to elephant seals. The most popular, and to me at least, the most believable, is a really big alligator.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.

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