This legend can be traced to Native American folklore, according to some news features about the Newport-area creature. The first recorded sighting was in 1915, followed by another report in 1924. The first national publicity about "Whitey" appeared in 1937 when farmer Bramblett Bateman reported to the media that he had watched a gigantic sea serpent-like beast frolic in the river near his home.
Newsreel cameramen, reporters and curiosity seekers lined the river downstream from Newport for weeks hoping to get a glimpse of the gray, slimy beast. In addition to Bateman, three other local residents signed affidavits stating they also had seen the creature. Reports of and interest in the river monster eventually subsided, and the incident was almost forgotten.
Then, in 1972, several people along the White -- between Jacksonport and Newport -- reported sighting strange objects in the river. "As big as a boxcar and 30 feet long...gray all over, with fins," one excited witness reported. At least seven sightings were recorded, and one witness offered a blurred Polaroid snapshot he'd taken of the elusive monster.
Once again, the national media focused on the small community of 8,000. A Japanese filmmaker arrived with the intentions of making a movie and hundreds of media interviews were staged. Local merchants cashed in on the hype by staging "Monster Sidewalk Sales," and a local restaurant placed "Monsterburgers" on the menu. Folksinger Jimmy Driftwood debuted a tune about the White River serpent during a Newport appearance.To ensure nothing tragic would happen to the seemingly friendly creature, the 1973 Arkansas Legislature passed a resolution declaring a section of the White River a "refuge" for the creature and banned anyone from "molesting, killing, trampling, or harming" Arkansas's proclaimed cousin to Scotland's Loch Ness monster.
A Chicago biologist and creature investigator, Dr. Roy Mackal, believes the creature is a known aquatic animal outside its normal habitat. After studies of eyewitness accounts, Mackal believes "Whitey" is actually a northern elephant seal that somehow found its way into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and eventually up Arkansas's White River. Elephant seals may attain a length of 22 feet.
Occasional sightings were reported until the late 1970s, then the river legend faded from the news. But it has not become completely forgotten among locals. The "magic dragon" sometimes reappears on souvenir T-shirts sold in Newport shops and at local festivals.
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