Here be spoilers...
Although my new novel, The Men in the Trees, isn't officially about Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot), it seemed only fitting that I cap off my Halloween spooky stories with this tales of large, furry forest creatures of unknown origin. In fact, elements of this real-life event found their way into my book, particularly as it relates to construction workers and old logging roads. If you've read the book, you'll probably see the bits I'm referring to as you read on through this blog.
The story began on September 19, 1958, the Eureka, California, newspapers printed a letter to the editor penned by a local woman named Mrs. Jess Bemis. Mrs. Bemis wrote that her husband, who worked on a construction crew in the deep woods of northern California, had been confounded by large human-like footprints he would find around his worksite each morning.
"On their way to the job," Mrs. Bemis wrote, "tracks were seen going down the road. The tracks measured 14 to 16 inches in length. The toes were very short, but were five to each foot. The ground was soft and the prints were clear."
Mrs. Bemis's letter would start a sensation as other construction crews began to report similar strange events, most of it centered around areas where logging roads were encroaching on what had otherwise been untouched wilderness. Was some forest resident investigating the work sites after the work crews had departed for the day? The hundreds of immense footprints found at these locations would seem to suggest a nocturnal visitor of mammoth proportions and unknown origin.
By far the most sensational series of events — in fact the one that popularized the term "Bigfoot" – took place in Humboldt County, California, in September and October 1958 as crews were constructing a logging access road in the Bluff Creek area.
"'Bigfoot' made his latest appearance sometime Wednesday night," reported an extensive article appearing in the October 6, 1958, edition of the Eureka Humboldt Standard. "Workmen reporting for work found the tracks in almost the same area as those seen about a week ago... Hundreds of these marks have been seen through the summer by the construction workers..."
Witnesses interviewed for the article seemed to be taking the footprints seriously, and some even remembered other strange occurrences from their years on these isolated construction projects. For example, Gerald Crew, an employee of the Granite Logging and Wallace Brothers companies, remembered an incident two years prior where something had tossed around "filled 50-gallon gasoline drums" on a timber access road just twenty miles from the current site where the footprints were being reported. Other workers reported large footprints they discovered around their heavy equipment in the Mad River area, approximately 30 miles from Bluff Creek. Was it the same animal?
But the hundreds of strange footprints were not the end of bizarre incidents reported by multiple witnesses. Workers recalled the eerie sense of being watched from the treeline or would notice that fruit had be stolen from the worksites. Many of the men employed to construct the Bluff Creek road began to quit and the tractors stopped working. The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office intimated that it was an elaborate hoax.
"Who knows anybody foolish enough to ruin his own business, man?" Ray Wallace, one of the construction company owners was quoted as saying. "The men say they quit because it’s too far to drive, but I think most of them are just plain scared!"
Then, on October 15, the Eureka Humboldt Standard's front page was emblazoned with the headline: EYEWITNESSES SEE BIGFOOT!
Two men, Ray Kerr and Leslie Breazeale, both of whom were employed on the Bluff Creek project, spotted an "apelike" creature vault across the road in front of their car. The sighting took place in the early morning hours and only half a mile from where most of the strange footprints were being discovered. Both men described the animal as walking upright with broad but stooped shoulders and low swinging arms. They estimated that the creature was at least eight feet tall and covered dark fur. Once the animal vanished into the trees, the men cautiously left the car and inspected the dirt road with a flashlight. The large footprints left in the soft dirt were virtually identical to those documented at the construction site. But this chance encounter on the road wasn't the only eyewitness encounter with the giant beast.
Wallace confessed that a different employee had also spotted the creature on a previous occasion.
"This sighting took place in the early morning hours when the bulldozer operator had just reached his tractor. Bigfoot apparently was drinking from Bluff Creek when spotted, then bounded up a steep incline into the brush," reported the Standard. The animal's description was very similar to that given by Kerr and Breazeale: a stooped posture with long dangling arms and measuring approximately four feet across at the shoulders. The bulldozer operator quit after this encounter and never returned to the job site.
While the local sheriff continued to imply that it was a hoax, possibly perpetrated by Wallace himself for reasons unknown, the construction workers and residents in the area began to tell their own tales about mysterious footprints and sightings of large, shaggy creatures which went back decades. The line between fact and fable began to blur, but the Bluff Creek construction site encounters do seem to be the starting point for a lot of incidental stories now commonly associated with Bigfoot. One example is the alleged Native American stories about a race of hairy giants who shared the woods with the various tribes. Anthropologists still argue about the veracity of this Native American "Bigfoot tales," some noting that myths about ancient giants are a common fixture in cultures all over the world but don't necessarily constitute proof of Bigfoot's existence. Conversely, enthusiasts point to the same stories and imagine that the tales may recall a time when early Homo sapiens shared the world with other human-like races, such as the Neanderthals. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the sightings, the popular television show "Truth or Consequences" offered $1000 to anyone who could either confirm the creature's existence or reveal the hoax. The money was never claimed.
Regardless of the truth behind the incidents of 1958, they would ultimately be eclipsed by what happened in the same area nine years later. On October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin would capture 24-feet of silent film of a large, hair-covered creature lumbering across a dry streambed. The film, simultaneously hailed as an important scientific discovery and history's most brilliant hoax, has been scrutinized for nearly fifty years. Recent high-tech analysis of the footage by popular cable television shows seemed to reinforce its authenticity, with a variety of experts claiming that the gait and musculature could not be faked even in the modern day. Skeptics point out the astronomical odds of Patterson and Gimlin actually stumbling upon a Bigfoot and being able to capture it on film. The filmmakers, however, openly acknowledged that they chose the Bluff Creek area due to the stories from 1958 that demonstrated it to be an active Bigfoot area.
Although the Patterson-Gimlin film sensation eclipsed the events of 1958, the controversy around the "Bigfoot invasion" refused to die. There were rumors over the years that Wallace had a much larger role in the footprints than he ever acknowledged, and was even accused of complicity with Patterson and Gimlin in the creation of their film. Wallace's alleged confessions to this were never confirmed and he never admitted to anything publicly. After his death in 2002, however, his family revealed a pair of large wooden feet that they claimed were hidden among his belongings.
Scrutiny quickly fell on the surviving Wallace family members who, it seemed, were perpetrating their own hoax by implicating the dead man. The family was unable to duplicate the footprints found at Bluff Creek using the wooden models, although they attempted to do so for the television cameras. Additionally, many of the family's claims seemed to contradict the news reports of 1958, including Wallace’s threats to sue the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department for slandering him as the hoaxter and offering "a reward of unspecified amount for information on how his name was pushed into the picture as perpetrator of the incident." Certainly the hoax – if it was one – cost Wallace a fortune as his workmen fled the site and his tractors sat idle. Additionally, men who worked the Bluff Creek site in 1958 stated that "Ray Wallace has not been on the job in over a month." Did he drive out to Bluff Creek in the middle of the night and leap around the treacherous terrain in a pair of wooden feet? It seems dubious that a businessman would destroy his own livelihood to perpetrate a hoax that brought him no financial gain.
In the end, the footprints at the Bluff Creek construction site remain an intriguing mystery... and possibly some of the best proof that an unknown primate lurks through the forests of the Northwest.