Heber Springs Water Panther
The Heber Springs Water Panther is a creature described as a cross between a Sasquatch (or “bigfoot”) and a puma that is rumored to haunt the waters of Greers Ferry Lake in Heber Springs (Cleburne County), though its origins appear to lie in a 2007 book.
The myth of the Water Panther begins with the Ojibwe, Algonquin, Cree, Ottawa, Menominee, and Shawnee tribes, and the legend may have been brought to Arkansas with the Shawnee, who were invited into the area by the Western Cherokee in the early nineteenth century. The beast was described as a malevolent spirit with features of a big cat or dragon that would drag people underwater to their deaths.
In his 2007 book Ozark Tales of Ghosts, Spirits, Hauntings, and Monsters, author W. C. Jameson claims that first Native American residents and later Euro-American hunters and trappers told of a beast that lived in a limestone cave and haunted the Little Red River bottomlands, killing people and animals and emitting a scream that was “a cross between the ‘cry of a panther and the scream of Satan himself.’”
When Greers Ferry Lake was created by the construction of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam between 1959 and 1962, the creature’s habitat was flooded, Jameson writes, leading to fewer reports of the monster until 1966 or so, when, he claims, “sightings of the water panther were reported with frightening regularity.” Instead of roaming the woods of the bottomlands, the beast was now seen swimming in the lake, with several people claiming “they saw the water panther entering or leaving a cave located on the northern shore of the lake, a partially submerged natural opening in a sheer limestone cliff.”
Jameson wrote of a scuba diver in the early 1970s who encountered “a horrid, man-like form covered with thick, dense fur” near the entrance to an underwater cave; the creature “moved with astonishing speed through the water” and ripped off the diver’s mask, but the hapless victim managed to fight it off and gain the surface, suffering from shock and lacerations.
He also claims that workers who were converting a cave to a boathouse for U.S. Senator John McClellan and installing an elevator to the cave from the senator’s clifftop home were terrorized during the project as they were “subjected to the hellish screams and agonizing cries of some hideous creature living in the hole.”
University of Central Arkansas (UCA) professor Mark Spitzer, while working on a book on legendary Arkansas creatures, investigated the Heber Springs Water Panther. The Heber Springs Sun Times ran a front-page story in 2011 requesting that anyone who knew of the Water Panther contact Spitzer, but the only person who did so was a man from Tumbling Shoals (Cleburne County) “who reported a six-foot-long black panther slinking through his neighbor’s yard sporting what looked like a Mohawk.”
Spitzer questioned boat dock owners and members of the Cleburne County Historical Society, none of whom had heard of the Water Panther, and looked through every issue of the Heber Springs Evening Times between 1970 and 1979 without finding a single reference to the beast. He concluded that he agreed with what “a crabby old man on a golf cart told me: ‘Son, you’re just chasing bullshit around!’”
For additional information:
Graham, D. Douglas. “Monsters of the Ozarks.” Fate 48 (November 1995): 32–36.
“Heber Springs Water Panther.” Arkansas.com. https://www.arkansas.com/articles/legendary-monsters (accessed October 22, 2021).
Jameson, W.C. Ozark Tales of Ghosts, Spirits, Hauntings, and Monsters. Baxter Springs, KS: Goldsmith Publishing, 2007.
“Native American Legends: The Underwater Panther (Mishipeshu).” Native Languages. http://www.native-languages.org/water-panther.htm (accessed October 22, 2021).
Spitzer, Mark. Crypto-Arkansas. N.p.: 2013.
Underwood, Edward L., and Karen J. Forgotten Tales of Arkansas. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.
Wolfe, Ron. “It Came from Arkansas!” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 15, 2013, pp 1E, 6E.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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