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The Silver Lake Sea Serpent

The legend of the Silver Lake Sea Serpent has inspired Silver Lake and the town of Perry in Wyoming County to sponsor events, including an annual Sea Serpent Festival in the summer

By Lynette M Loomis

Bob Murphy and the camera that launched his career, bought through Bazooka Bubble gum

In a day when no one believes anything, it is hard to imagine that in 1855, a monster fascinated people. But historian and photographer Bob Murphy, 75, said that is exactly what happened.

Sliver Lake, near Perry, has several claims to fame.

Both the inlet and the outlet of the lake are located at the same end of the lake, the north end. The Silver Lake Drive-In Theatre, established in 1949, is one of only about 350 drive-in theaters left in the country, boasting two screens and first-run movies. The Silver Lake Pioneer Cabin Museum is thought to be the second oldest museum in the state, outside of New York City. It has the original signature of Susan B. Anthony when she spoke there on Temperance. But the Silver Lake Sea Serpent is its most notable legend.

Murphy has written 39 articles on the history of Silver Lake.

As he describes it, the early-1870s were a time of tourism and prosperity for Silver Like. Hotels and dining establishments lined the east side of the lake where a railroad ran alongside the length of the lake. Tourism had slowed a bit, due in part to the Temperance movement. In 1855, four men in a small fishing boat saw what they first thought was a large log. When the “log” began to move toward the boat, they did their best to row away. As the men told it, the beast was 80 feet long, with eyes as red as coals. It sprayed water out of its mouth, up some four or five feet into the air.

Their story of this sighting spread quickly around the countryside and eventually around the world.

The railroad cars were full. Buggies, stages and horses brought curiosity seekers to the area. Watch towers were erected for people hoping to catch a glimpse of the monster. Whaling men with harpoons arrived to try to capture the beast. Tourism flourished.

Then the beast seemed to disappear.

A.B. Walker, a local businessman, was credited with creating the legend of the Silver Lake Sea Serpent as a way to draw more people to his hotel.

Two years later, a fire raged in the Walker House Hotel. The firefighters made it to the attic to see a canvas hide wrapped over wire and looked dragon like. A nearby bellows suggested how the sea serpent was inflated. It was a complete hoax, created by a savvy businessman, A.B. Walker, hoping to create more business for his hotel.

According to Murphy, it was members of the Seneca Nation who gave Walker the idea to create a monster. There were two villages on the east and west side of Silver Lake, Ga-Na-Yat. The Senecas camped in the area during the summer months. One of their legends was of a monster that lived in the water and that any loud or unnatural noise would cause the monster to rise from the water. The legend said that after a lightning strike on the lake, the beast floated ashore where brave men killed it.

The Wyoming Historical Pioneer Association is the longest running historical organization in Wyoming County.  It was organized in 1872 to commemorate the pioneers of our county and is home to many of the artifacts Murphy and others have collected. As a student of history, he has amassed more than 5,000 images of Perry and Silver Lake. To collect all of these images, he sometimes went door-to-door asking families if they had photos of relatives who once lived in the area. On weekends or by appointment, he opens the Silver Lake Log Cabin Museum.

One cannot talk about this area without mentioning Mary Jemison. She was known as the “White Woman of the Genesee.” As a young girl, she was captured and adopted into a Seneca family to replace a dead child. She embraced their customs and later married two Native American men and bore eight children. Her blonde hair prompted them to give her the name of Corn Tassel. She was an industrious worker and became one of the largest landowners in the area. The Silver Lake Log Cabin Museum displays one of her chairs.

The museum is open in July and August on Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. or by appointment in the fall and spring.

Contact Murphy at 585-969-1019 for appointments. Free admission with donations welcomed. The WHPA mailing address is P.O. Box 1, Silver Lake, NY. 14549.