Skip to content

Seal, serpent or devil: What lurks in the lake? (4 photos)

In this week's Remember This?, Mary Harris delves deeper into the legend of a mythical creature living in Lake Simcoe

The doubters were many. The stories of children, or from fishermen who may or may not have packed a bottle or two into their gear, were greeted by skepticism from the local folks.

They wanted to believe, but the tales of some sort of water monster gliding just beneath the waves of Kempenfelt Bay were just
a bit too tall for most to swallow.

Beginning in 1880, what had been only a small footnote in First Nations mythology suddenly became one of the most talked about subjects on Barrie street corners and in the local press.

The newspapers were conflicted as to how to cover the happenings, if they were happenings at all.

The people were keen to read all about any new developments in regards to the strange creature sightings, but the local editors were used to dealing in facts. There were few of those to be had.

The articles were an odd mix of sarcasm and skepticism blended with local pride. If any other regional newspaper dared express doubt about Barrie’s legendary lake dweller, there was immediate pushback, even if our writers and publishers weren’t all that convinced themselves.

Stranger still, if other publications up and down the Lake Simcoe shores, or in attached bodies of water, seemed to support

Barrie’s claims with reported sightings of their own, they were quickly painted as writers of fiction.

On July 7, 1881, the editors of the Northern Advance were obviously quite put out by a story run in preceding days by an Orillia publication. In a short and pointed article, more of an open letter really, the Advance cast a long shadow of doubt upon reports that a sea serpent had been spotted in Lake Couchiching.

“We may say in this connection that we are prepared to liberally reward any sea-faring man, newspaper correspondent, fisherman or other reliable person who will send us without delay a description of what where and how the sea serpent is, accompanied by an affidavit that the writer never eats roasted cheese before going to bed and never, or at least hardly ever, drops into an Orillia barroom.”

The Advance finished with one last swipe at their rival to the northeast.

“How can we look unmoved on the spectacle of our good friend the editor of the Times pining to see a real serpent and wildly anxious to have the one in question stuffed and hung up as an office ornament?”

By August, the Globe newspaper of Toronto had caught onto the story. Allan Cavana, a land surveyor working in the marshes near The Narrows, had written to an uncle in Toronto about an unexpected sighting of the creature.

With this outsider publication into the mix, an unlikely alliance was born when the Northern Advance reported that the editor of the Orillia Times publicly wondered why this esteemed big-city paper was so slow to investigate.

The Orillia editor put forward a theor: He had heard a story from a local resident that a travelling circus had once passed through the area and had released an ailing seal into the Lake Simcoe.

Most witness descriptions suggested that the animal in question was larger and much longer. The editor concluded, “Seal, serpent or devil, there is no doubt it is there.”

The possibility of the existence of a mystery water creature was given more credence when a respected citizen who made his life on the local lakes caught a glimpse. Capt. Johnson, of the Queen of the Isles steamer, described the sea serpent as something resembling a sea lion.

Still, the Barrie newspapers struggled to support the legend of this invisible local celebrity. They walked a fine line between offending those who believed that something very special and rare was living in the nearby waters, and finding themselves with egg on their faces if the whole affair turned out to be a hoax.

The newspapermen very much wished for some shred of proof either way, and to be put out of their misery. Before the creature commotion finally faded away, they lamented their predicament.

“The existence of the sea creature being proved; it only remains to capture him. How this can be accomplished scientific men in this neighbourhood are seriously deliberating. Some have suggested music to entice him on shore, while others are of the opinion that a carefully worded invitation to a garden party might do it. Then again it is held that a prize chromo or complimentary ticket to the next circus might be tried with gratifying results.”

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.


Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
Read more