The Curse of the River Monster

Louisiana has it’s crawfish boils and Low Country has their shrimp and grits, but where I’m from – land of lakes and rivers – it’d be a sin to not have fried catfish grease dripping from the kitchen walls at any respectable reunion.

Like the Natives before us who gave offerings and sacrifice to that which was most important to their survival; the corn, rain, bears, etc.; us Southerners, lovers of tradition, carry the torch by giving up some of our fine young men so that our catfish may be forever multiplying – at least in story. An archetype as old as time, the curse of sea monster has been haunting man from day one. From Architeuthis to the white whale and everything in between, the legend always ends the same, and whoever sees the creature must pay the ultimate price.

Before Tennessee’s lakes were created (all but one – Reelfoot – that was formed naturally by the 1811-1812 earthquakes on the New Madrid fault line), our rivers were our shining glory.  Blessed with the Cumberland, Mississippi, and the Tennessee, fish protein was immensely important when North Carolina’s red headed stepchild (modern day Tennessee) was still being settled.  Oral tradition goes back into the early 1800’s about a monster catfish, some call him “Catzilla” who stalks the banks of the Tennessee River looking for his next victim. Some estimate that he is as big as a bus, “close to 25 feet long” with “frothing lips.”

In 1822, a farmer named Buck Sutton was fishing in the Tennessee when he saw that ominous sea serpent and understood he was on borrowed time for he knew “the curse.” He died a few days later from “the serpent’s curse,” but not before he got to tell his tale.

In 1827 Billy Burns was near the same spot as Buck and also witnessed the beast, which he described as aggressive, knocking him out of his canoe.  It was “snake-like” and bluish-yellow.  Poor Billy also died “mysteriously” just a few days later.

The killer fish lays low for a while but strikes again in 1829. This time the victim, Jim Windom, prolonged his death sentence by repenting and going to church, but there’s no escaping fate.  He died several months later.

After the rise of steam boats, the sightings – and the deaths – stop, but his bones were never found…

The Tennessee Terror may have never been discovered, but the bones of one prehistoric sea monster was.  Fossils uncovered in 1834 date a sea serpent that would have swam in what is modern day Alabama (and also very likely Tennessee) back to the Eocene epoch (56 to 33.9 million years ago). He measured in right around 70 feet.

You never know what may be lurking beneath the murky waters of the Tennessee…

What Lies Beneath – Ghost Town Under Dale Hollow Lake

Ever heard of an underwater ghost town?  When the government was taking up land for civil projects like lakes and dams, sometimes whole towns got in the way.  One such example is the quaint town of Willow Grove in Tennessee.

Willow Grove was founded by five families from the Colony of New York who bought the land off Chief Nettlecarrier, one of the last Cherokee Chiefs in the area, around 1785.  Willow Grove has been cited as the first permanent white settlement in the Upper Cumberland due to their positive relations with the Cherokee.

The town grew until the Wolf River dam and Dale Hollow Lake were proposed.  All of the graves had to be dug up and moved to the St. John’s cemetery outside of the flood zone.   On July 18, 1942 the people of Willow Grove stood together in one last cathartic moment, to mourn the loss of their town.

There are several ghosts who frequent the now drowned town, but none so common as the Old Lady of the Lake.  There are multiple accounts of a whirling, rising white mist with unnatural movement coming off the lake, many of which believe is the ghost of one of the settler’s wives who is searching for her wedding ring.

You can still explore the school house of Willow Grove if you are a certified SCUBA diver – if you dare.