The White River Monster of Arkansas

The White River flows from Northwest Arkansas up through Branson, Missouri, and then back down into Arkansas before joining the Mississippi River.

The White River rises in the Boston Mountains of Northwest Arkansas and flows 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri to the Mississippi River. It is beautiful and carries more than 26,000 gallons of water per second downstream to the Mississippi. The river is also home to the Loch Ness Monster of the South!

The White River Monster has been reported since at least the early 1900s. Some fans even suggest that it might have been responsible for sinking a boat on the river during the Civil War, but there is no mention of a monster attack in the official records of the Union and Confederate armies and navies.

The first known account of something strange in the White River actually dates to December 1912. Timber workers floating rafts of cedar on the White River below Branson, Missouri, saw something large on the bottom of the river. They thought at first that it was a boulder, but then it moved. They emerged from the river at Cotter, Arkansas, to announce they had seen a gigantic turtle:

They estimated its weight at 300 pounds. The report of the big river monster created quite a sensation among the sportsmen of Branson,
and Tom Brainard, one of the local anglers, organized a party to go and capture it. As it will be impossible to gig the turtle they took a
number of strong ropes which they will endeavor to loop over it and land it in that manner. [1]

The White River (Lake Taneycomo) at Branson, Missouri. The 1912 expedition left Branson to search for the monster.

The results of the expedition down the river from Branson are not known, but twelve years later the monster of White River showed up further downstream in Arkansas. According to some accounts, a Little Rock woman described seeing it surface with a blowing noise. She described it as gray with some kind of strange hide.

The real explosion of publicity about the White River Monster, however, came in 1937. A farmer named Bramlett Bateman reported that workers on his plantation had seen something strange in a deep eddy of the White River about 6 miles downstream from Newport, Arkansas. Bateman went to take a look for himself and described the creature as being a car-length wide, three car-lengths long and with a hide like an elephant.

It is worth noting that Bateman’s description was very similar to the one reported around the world four years earlier during the first major blast of coverage of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. It should also be noted that Newport and much of the White River Valley had been devastated by one of the worst floods in Arkansas history earlier in 1937. While some have suggested that this might have caused the monster to become trapped in the eddy below Newport, it must also be mentioned that the conditions were also ripe for a publicity stunt that would bring visitors and desperately needed cash to the area.

Does this USDA aerial photo show the White River Monster? Arrows point out a strange object and the wake it left behind.

One thing is certain, the nation’s newspaper editors were looking for an exotic story to splash across their pages and the White River Monster fit the bill. The story spread across the United States and by July 13, 1937, even the Trenton, New Jersey, carried the story of a state bridge toll collector’s effort to snag the beast:

Newport residents fashioned a big rope net today in the hope of being able to snare a mysterious “monster” whose presence in a 60-foot deep White River eddy six miles south of here has frightened Negro plantation workers.

W.E. Penix, State toll bridge collector, directing the net making activities, ordered it be constructed 40 feet long and 15 feet wide with meshes of six or eight inches. He estimated it would require a week or 10 days to complete the net and said a convoy of motorboats would sweep the eddy with it.

Six days later news went out over the Associated Press that a “river bottom walker” was going after the monster. Hired by the local Chamber of Commerce, Charles B. Brown of the U.S. Engineer’s Office in Memphis reported that he did not expect to encounter anything dangerous in the White River, but would carry along a giant harpoon just in case. He was convinced the monster was a fish of some sort, most likely a giant

The White River flows beneath historic Beaver Bridge near Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

The Newport Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, set up a fence and charged 25-cents per person to look for the monster.

Not everyone was convinced. The Heraldo de Brownsville, a Texas newspaper, suggested that perhaps while the diver was “down in the mud he might also bring up the next campaign issue.”

The local Chamber of Commerce, however, went into high gear. Signs were posted on roads throughout the region and invitations went out to newspapers from throughout the region. Stores in town were closed and hundreds of people gathered along the banks of the river to watch the dives. Newspaper reports indicate that people came from as far away as California and reporters noted that the community received a much needed infusion of cash in the hard times of the Great Depression.

Things did not go well for Brown. Three times he went into the 60-foot deep water of the mysterious eddy by the Bateman farm. He got stuck in deep silt and had to be pulled out with ropes. Then there was a problem with an air valve that caused his rubberized dive suit to fill with air and send him bobbing to the surface. The third time wasn’t a charm either. After an hour of poking around in the weeds and mud of the river bottom, Brown was pulled to the surface to report that he had seen only a catfish and a log.

The White River at Cotter, Arkansas, near the site of the “giant turtle” sighting. Photo by Steve Dally

Probably the most interesting thing seen in the river that weekend, in fact, was not the White River Monster but the homemade dive apparatus of a local man named David Smyth. Apparently inspired to innovation, he built his own diving gear from “an old gasoline tank, rubber hose and bicycle pump manned from a boat.” He had no more luck than his professionally-equipped rival.

Over the years that followed, sightings of the monster were reported now and then but failed to generate the publicity of the 1937 episode. The most widely reported of these began in 1971 when Newport resident David Jenks reported seeing a large creature in the river that he described as being gray and long with a “pointy bone” protruding from its head. He thought it weighed around 1,000 pounds.

Two days later on June 28th, a man named Cloyce Warren produced a photograph of the monster. Extremely fuzzy, it appears to show some kind of a hump floating in the river. The search was on once again.

The next major development came on July 5, 1971, when the county sheriff reported finding strange footprints on Towhead Island just north of Bateman Eddy. He said they were 14 inches long and 8 inches wide with three long toes or claws and a spur of some kind projecting from the heel.

Other sightings continued through the summer, including one by a fisherman and his grandson who said something large had come up under their boat. Curiously, once again the sightings took place following heavy floods along the White River.

Could the White River Monster be a gigantic Alligator Snapping Turtle? USFWS

In 1973, the Arkansas legislature approved a resolution designating a stretch of the White River from Newport to Possum Grape as the White River Monster Refuge. It is unlawful to kill or otherwise harm the monster within the limits of the refuge.

It is impossible to know whether there really is a White River Monster, but some of the eyewitness reports do raise an interesting possibility. The 1912 sighting by the lumbermen working on the river south of Branson of a creature they described as a gigantic turtle is definitely worthy of note. So too is the 1971 report by David Jenks of a creature with a “pointy bone” projecting from its head as well as other eyewitness reports that describe the monster as a large hump with its head hidden underwater or as having a jagged spine.

These various accounts when viewed together suggest that the monster could be a giant Alligator Snapping Turtle. These giant turtles are some of the largest in the world and they are found in the rivers of Arkansas and other Southern states. Not only do they have pointed heads, they also have three spiny ridges down their backs. They also can appear grayish in color at times.

Could one grow big enough to be the White River Monster? The largest one ever caught was a 403 pound specimen caught in the Neosho River of Kansas in 1937. It is thought that normal adults can reach weights of 300 pounds and ages of 150 years. The creature seen in the river below Branson was estimated to weigh 300 pounds, while low-end estimates of the weight of the White River Monster are given as around 600 pounds.

While it is a possibility, the real answer still remains out there, waiting to be unveiled. The best place to take a look at the White River Monster Preserve is at Jacksonport State Park in Jacksonport, Arkansas. The park preserves the site of an early river port, an early Arkansas courthouse and a riverwalk preserve along the White River.

Please click here to learn more about Jacksonport State Park.

To learn about other mysteries, please click here to visit our Ghosts, Monsters & Mysteries of the South page.