Port Henry is nestled at the foot of the Adirondacks, on the shore of Lake Champlain. But beyond the picturesque scenery, it’s struggling just like many small towns.
“You see what Main Street in Port Henry looks like on a Sunday—it’s you and I,” says Lohr McKinstry, the president of the Chamber of Commerce for Moriah, which includes Port Henry. The area was once a bustling hub of iron mining, but since the mines closed down in the ‘70s, it’s lost its footing.
Now, some residents are hoping that the key to economic recovery lies with a local legend that claims their lake is home to a mythical monster named Champ.
A sign welcomes visitors to Port Henry, “Home of Champ.” Local boosters believe ‘Champ’ is the key to Port henry’s revival. Photo: Julia Press
“People were seeing this Lake Champlain monster”
Ron Kermani was a local reporter during a flurry of Champ sightings back in the ‘80s. “Port Henry was in the press, for good reasons,” he remembers. “Not that the mines had closed or that something else had befallen the little town here, but something good was happening. People were seeing this Lake Champlain monster, this Nessie cousin if you will.”
Kermani wrote a four-part investigative series covering the spate of sightings. “And I remained a healthy skeptic of all things Champ until July 2, 1983.”
That day, around 7am, Ron and his girlfriend took their rowboat out on the water. “The lake was as calm as could be—it was like the surface was glass. My girlfriend turns to me and says, ‘Ron, what’s that?’ And about 30 feet from our boat, three large, dark humps break the surface of the water. It was eerie, it was unsettling, unexplainable.”
Ron Kermani reported on a series of Champ sightings in the ‘80s, before seeing the monster himself. Photo: Julia Press
Andrea Anesi wears a homemade lake monster face mask and a ‘Champ’ promotion pin from the 1980s. She hopes ‘Champ’ cryptotourism can help Port Henry come back. Photo: Julia Press
Could Port Henry become “Home of Champ”?
Andrea Anesi and her husband, Kyle Miller, moved to Port Henry in 2013, and very quickly, they noticed a glaring sea monster-sized hole. Kyle was working at the Lake Champlain Visitors’ Center, where tourists would ask about Champ-related things to see or buy. “It just made me realize, by default there are people coming here looking for this stuff and they’re going away empty-handed.”
Across the water in Vermont, there was already a little Champ trading post and a Minor League baseball team, the Lake Monsters, but Port Henry came up short.
So the couple opened Home of Champ, a virtual store where they sell things like mugs, magnets and plush toys. Andrea’s also on the Chamber of Commerce, where she runs an annual Champ Day celebration and is pushing for investment in more Champ tourism efforts.
“I get very enthusiastic about it when I’m at the Chamber meetings,” she says. “There’s probably not too many meetings that I don’t at least try to bring it up.”
They have a lot of ideas—like putting up a huge lake monster sculpture for visitors to take selfies with, or launching boat tours, where visitors can cruise around the water, looking for a glimpse of Champ.
“If you talk to any person who owns a boat here, ‘Would you like to quit your job and putter around on the lake all day?’ They would jump at the chance,” Kyle says. “They just have never had their eyes open to the opportunity.”
Port Henry’s annual Champ Day festival is held at Champ Beach Park and Campgrounds on the shore of Lake Champlain. Photo: Julia Press
Build a celebrity cryptid and they will come
Andrea and Kyle aren’t the first to dream of a Champ-based economy. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Chamber of Commerce tried to bill Port Henry as a tourist destination. It put out flyers and Champ pins, and held the inaugural Champ Day festival. But most of those efforts died on the vine.
“Different people kind of tire of Champ for some reason and then move on,” says Loren Coleman. Coleman is the director of the International Cryptozoology Museum. He’s made a career of studying creatures that may or may not exist, and the people who hunt for them—sometimes shaping a region’s entire economy around what he calls “cryptotourism.”
“I see cryptotourism as a very slow process,” he says. “You build a museum, and people will come, and then people will need a place to stay and they’ll need someplace to eat.”
Coleman has seen this work before, in places like Loch Ness, or the homes of Bigfoot or Mothman. There, a little investment in their local creature has drawn huge crowds and brought in a steady stream of money year-round. But when it comes to Port Henry, there’s never been enough long term commitment from researchers, businesses, or the local government. It’s a shame, Coleman says, because Champ is one of what he calls “celebrity cryptids,” creatures whose names people recognize.
“Port Henry is in a good position to make this work, if they just stay the course,” he says. “It really needs to have some person or some business or some museum in that area that really is invested in Champ being used, and lots of people will go there and they’ll never see the monster, but they’ll see that beautiful lake.”
Coleman says that’s often what makes cryptotourism successful. And it’s what people like Kyle and Andrea are banking on—that once tourists show up, whether or not they see Champ, whether or not Champ even exists, they’ll fall in love with what they find.
The Chamber has started talks with a regional tourism group about putting money towards Champ promotion. And once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the hope is that Port Henry will be ready to give the monster-seekers something to see, and somewhere to spend their money.