I read this story years ago as it ran in the local newspaper. I have enjoyed rereading it through the years and am glad it was preserved for us in its entirety. (The photo attached is not of the Cross Lake Hippo but a free graphic used to illustrate the story.)
A Look Back
Author’s note: I first published the following story 10 years ago. It turned out to be one of my most popular pieces of writing. During the intervening decade, I have been asked about it over and over again by readers who remembered it and requested it be reprinted. With some slight modifications, I am doing so now.
What follows is an unusual but true story that occurred many years ago in Shreveport. Actually, it occurred on Cross Lake, which was then outside the city, as the lake was not incorporated into Shreveport’s city limits until 1963.
It is the story of a hippopotamus that made its home in the lake, an unlikely happenstance indeed, but as it is said, truth can be stranger than fiction.
In the mid-1920s, there lived an old hermit on one of the fingers of land that jutted out into Cross Lake’s northwest reaches. There, on an almost inaccessible piece of real estate covered with moss-covered trees, he had built a little cabin for himself. The man hunted and fished and had little contact with anyone else in the world. Perfectly content was he to dwell alone among the frogs and birds and fishes of the lake.
Actually, however, the man, whose name is now forgotten, did not live entirely alone. He had a most unusual pet, a pet no one knew about except himself. That is, until one day in June 1928, when a fisherman named Jake Carnahan was out fishing in the channel off Cross Lake’s Twin Islands. As Carnahan sat there in his boat, a huge beast arose from the lake blowing water from its nostrils and letting out a roar.
Carnahan did not immediately recognize the animal as a hippo since hippos are certainly not indigenous to Cross Lake, and so he did not stop to consider that hippos are herbivores, and thus not a threat to humans. Therefore, he did what any sensible person would do: He hauled anchor and fled.
No one believed Carnahan, at least not at first. But then, in rapid succession, more and more fishermen and boaters reported seeing a strange beast in the lake. Stories about the “Cross Lake Monster” began to circulate and were even picked up by the press beyond Shreveport. It seemed Caddo Parish suddenly could lay claim its own Loch Ness-type situation. Finally, however, the “monster” was captured, and the rumors were put to rest.
The hippo turned out to be a good-natured fellow and one much smaller than the stories of some of the witnesses to Cross Lake’s own sea monster would have had one believe.
With his capture, which occurred in the autumn of 1928, also came the tale of how a hippopotamus ended up living on Cross Lake. It might be added he lived quite happily on Cross Lake, too. After all, his little inlet was rather secluded, and there were plenty of delicious lily pads and other water vegetation to be eaten. The lake provided a regular hippo’s buffet.
Mr. Hippo’s mistake was a natural enough one. Being the only hippopotamus in the lake, he came to consider the entire place his own territory, and venturing out farther into the waters, perhaps in search of other hippos and greener lily pads, he made himself conspicuous to fishermen, boaters and other humans with whom he shared his watery domain.
In any case, the hippo (his name, like that of his friend the old man, remains anonymous) came to the lake a couple of years previous as a baby. The old man had purchased him for $25 from someone who claimed he was looking for a good home for his baby hippopotamus. Now in most people, such a statement would be a tip-off something was amiss somewhere, but the old fellow paid the $25 and did indeed provide the little hippo with a good home.
As it was, the baby hippo had been stolen from a traveling circus. The old fellow, if he knew the truth (which he probably did not), did not care. His idea was to keep the hippo around for a while, as the care and feeding of hippos is simple when you live on a lake, let him grow big, then sell him to a zoo for a hefty profit.
Initially, the old hermit and his hippo would go for walks in the woods along the lake’s shore, much as one would do with a pet dog, the hippo trotting along happily with his friend. They bonded, the man and his little hippo. As the animal grew larger, which happened quickly, the hippo would venture farther out into the lake and disappear for longer periods of time. Nevertheless, he always came home after a while. When one day he did not, the old man set out from his seclusion in search of his pet, and that is how the story came to the public’s attention and how the mystery that had held the public’s attention throughout the summer of 1928 was solved.
In the end, the hippo, described at the time as “young, healthy, unusually domesticated” was sold for an undisclosed amount to a Mr. A. W. Barnaby and Son, dealers in exotic animals. They, in turn, sold him to a large midwestern zoo for $1,250. Presumably, he lived out his life, which may have lasted into the 1960s or later, considering the life spans of hippopotami, happily dwelling among others of his own kind.
One wonders, however, if he ever thought about his youth on Cross Lake. A few months later, the old man’s cabin was destroyed in a forest fire that ravaged a swath of the lake’s north shore. He moved out of the area, and that was the last Shreveport ever heard of him or of the gentle “monster” of Cross Lake.
(Eric J. Brock was an award-winning social and architectural historian and the author of several books on Shreveport and Louisiana history. He passed away in 2011, at the young age of 45, as the result of a heart attack.)