It was 67 years ago this July.
The story began with sightings of strange three-toed clawprints that were discovered in the muddy shoreline along the Nith River in New Hamburg. Adjoining the prints were long, deeply imprinted grooves as if something heavy had been dragged along. What WAS it? Theories and conjectures abounded. Even the New Hamburg Independent joined in:
“The topic of most conversation these days is of the “thing” that has been leaving a weird trail through parts of the north and western parts of the town.”
(July 10, 1953)
Police Chief George Thomas claimed that he had witnessed the beast as it crawled onto the shore one evening. Alarmed by its lizard-like gait and size (he estimated it was about 3-4 feet long), he shot at it but missed. He claimed the creature disappeared back into the river. The “sighting” remained elusive. The only concrete “evidence” were the tracks that had been left behind. The story gained momentum and even out of town newspapers (as far away as Windsor and Montreal) ran with it.
Speculation abounded. The tracks featured long continuous grooves that were punctuated by the three-toed prints and it was surmised that maybe the creature was anything from a heron to a turtle—or even a “large lizard-like animal or dog dragging a chain.” The most plausible theory was that it was most likely an “alligator, brought back from Florida by travelers, [that] had been released when it grew too large.” Regardless, there were only tracks, a reported sighting by one man (the police chief) and no body to speak of. The creature did gain a name though—Nithy.
Tracks continued to appear throughout that summer (yes, “that” summer) and even zoologists from the University of Western Ontario weighed in but nothing was identified as a possible source animal who could have been indigenous to the area capable of making the exact track marks.
The timing of the sighting was interesting in and of itself, as the ‘burg was otherwise preparing for an important local horse-racing event which, it was hoped, would draw in crowds from afar—Derby Days. The event ran annually each August from 1936-1958 and by 1953 it had already been losing momentum. Was Nithy merely a publicity hoax? Many to this day thought so especially since the only witness to have reported a sighting was police Chief Thomas, himself. Thomas would have been a most credible source for the whole scheme if indeed it was a publicity stunt. And, stunt aside, the story was a popular one and it did bring in curiosity seekers from all over the region, hoping for a sighting. The story also put the name of New Hamburg in the current news.
|Photo: New Hamburg Independent|
Locals embraced the publicity. One man, John Neilson (who was a local baker), decided to get in on the fund and cooked up a replica crocodile out of bread dough. After painting it to look authentic, he placed it in a widely visible location (there is a small island in the middle of the river near the Harman Bridge in New Hamburg, Ontario). Local kids, including the son of Chief Thomas, proudly posed with the doughy critter for a publicity photo shoot.
As a further promotion, a (then) well-known wrestler "Tuffy Truesdell" heard of Nithy and vowed that he would take on the beast if it were found. Truesdale was himself Well-known for wrestling large alligators and bears as part of his "act." In an attempt to capture said animal, Truesdell even brought one of his own alligators to the town to publicize the search. Nithy, however, was having none of it and remained at large.
|Photo: New Hamburg Independent|
The story lingered in the press and around town for sometime after that, and eventually disseminated as a sideline to newspapers in Oneonta, New York and Townsville, Australia. Several years after the first reports, a float in the 1957 New Hamburg centennial parade featured a giant alligator with a banner that read “myth of the Nith.”
At this point, it is nearly certain that the whole thing was concocted and chief Thomas is the most likely suspect. At the very least, he was a viable and no doubt cooperative participant. It has long been believed that Thomas probably made the tracks himself. A question remains, did the story help the ailing Derby Days event? It would seem so as the August 14th edition of the 1953 New Hamburg Independent reported that Derby Days that year was a “huge success.”
Regardless of whether it was a hoax or not the story has made an impression in the wider Waterloo Region. Today, at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum, as you enter the new building you may notice the lovely watercourse that has been constructed just outside its front door. If you look closely, you may also notice that there is a concrete creature, an alligator to be precise, positioned strategically in the centre of the pond area. And yes, you guessed it—it is the museum’s homage to that 1953 legend of Nithy.
Perhaps he migrated a few kilometres east from New Hamburg?