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The Legend of Blackwater Lake

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From 1965 until 2008, the Eastland Missionary Camp in South Dakota served as a place for missionaries to stay when they wanted to take time off, as well as a campground for churches to use for retreats, children's summer camps, and so on. The camp was generally considered to be a fairly quiet place, separate from the “noise of the world” as the founder, Reverend Henry Eastland liked to put it. When I was young, my church would hold a summer camp for children ages seven through twelve. My parents sent me with them several times when I was a kid.

Horror stories and summer camp go hand in hand and as much as both the camp staff tried to suppress this fact, we all heard our fair share of them. The one we heard the most was the so-called “Legend of Blackwater Lake”. Blackwater Lake was a fairly large lake that covered a large portion of the northwest side of the campground. It was on the shores of this lake where the larger cabins were built to house church groups and allowed them to be separate from the smaller, individual cabins which were rented out to visiting missionaries.

If you were to ask the final owner of the camp before it was shut down how the lake had acquired its name, he would tell you that it was named for a missionary named Ezra Blackwater, who was one of Eastland’s first and most frequent visitors, supposedly a close friend of the reverend himself. This is the same story that the previous owner would probably tell you. The truth, however, is that nobody really knows for certain from where the lake got its name, except for Reverend Eastland and he died only seven years after the camp opened. All I can say for certain is that my research into the camp records indicates that no one with the name Ezra Blackwater nor even just the surname had ever stayed on the premises. Now that said, prior to Eastland’s death, the record keeping of the camp was not exactly up to par. Furthermore, a flooding incident destroyed many of the camp’s older records.

The more recent records do not indicate that anyone with the name “Ezra Blackwater” nor even the surname “Blackwater” had ever stayed on the premises. The more damning evidence, however, is the fact that after checking the archives of the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board, I was unable to find any listing of an Ezra Blackwater. There is of course, the possibility that Blackwater would have been with a different missionary organization or he might have even been an independent missionary. But considering the massive financial and legal difficulties independent missionaries face, that situation seems unlikely. In addition, Reverend Eastland very rarely associated his church with any mission boards other than the two previously mentioned. Only one thing is certain: as far as any official documentation goes, there does not seem to have ever been a missionary named Ezra Blackwater.

No one I know has any solid idea of where the “Legend” started. Though, after talking to dozens of the camp’s attendees, I can safely say that the story has been around in one form or another since the mid-seventies. At this point, it’s more or less impossible to say what elements were and were not part of the original story. There are quite a few different variations and while the core plot remains the same throughout each retelling, I have heard many versions of different key elements.

With that said, after hearing retelling after retelling of the story from countless individuals, some of whom were able to supply me with two or more versions, I’ve done my best to cobble together a somewhat cohesive version of the tale using what are, from what I can tell, the oldest and most reoccurring elements.

The story begins relatively simply. “There was a boy named Tom who came to Eastland Missionary Camp with his Sundays school class. The class was small, only about twenty five children in all, and they planned to arrive on Monday and leave on Friday.

Now, a rule that we always hear over and over again here at camp is that campers are not allowed to leave their cabins after dark without permission from a counselor or in case of an emergency. But Tom was a well-known troublemaker and had been repeatedly forbidden from participating in activities with the other campers as punishment. Eventually, he was told he couldn’t go canoeing.

Tom became very upset, since that was one of the activities he was really looking forward to. So, Tom snuck out late one night after he knew everyone was asleep. Illuminated by the light of the full moon, he crept over to the shack where the canoes were kept. At the time, there was no lock on the door, since the camp was so isolated. With some difficulty, Tom dragged one of the smaller canoes over to the shore of Blackwater Lake and set off, paddle in hand, grinning at his success.

Unfortunately, it was very late at night and Tom started to grow tired. Try as he might, he felt his eyelids starting to droop as he began to nod off. Tom had no idea how long he was asleep for, but he was awoken by the canoe bumping into something. Looking around, he quickly saw that the canoe had landed on a tiny islet in the center of Blackwater Lake. Tom stood up, confused. There should not have been an islet anywhere in Blackwater Lake. The moon hung high and bright in the sky, and Tom could see all the points on the shore from this little islet.

He walked around its circumference, slowly and carefully. There wasn’t that much to see. It mostly appeared to be sand and tall grass. He approached the point on the islet where the canoe was, or rather, should have been. To Tom’s horror and dismay, the canoe had floated off and was now about twenty yards away. He watched as the canoe floated further and further off, knowing that his only options were to try to swim back or to just sit and wait for daytime. Either way, he knew that he was in big trouble.

Tom sat down on the sand, trying to decide which the better option was. He was distracted, however by a blurry shadow in the reflection of the moon on the water. He blinked and looked up at the moon, thinking that it must have just been a cloud, but the sky was completely clear that night. There was not a cloud in sight.

He looked back at the shadow on the lake, realizing that it had grown larger. He stared at it. To his horror, it was actively becoming bigger and bigger. Soon, the already dark lake was completely engulfed in blackness. Tom looked down at the waves hitting the shore of the islet and saw that the water itself had become a murky, pitch black. He backed up slowly, eyes glued onto the water…

Honestly, the next part is one I can’t quite make heads or tails of. I’ve heard over 30 variations on the story and while each version more or less has been the preceding tale, nearly every version I have heard has had a different ending. I have never heard the same ending from more than five different sources. There are versions where the story ends with Tom being caught by some kind of aquatic monster or ghost or serial killer or in some cases, an amalgamation of the three. The fact remains that nobody can seem to come to an agreement on how the story should end.

That said, there is only one ending that I heard more than once, which is to say five times. It goes like this:

Early the next morning, the campers and staff found Tom unconscious on the shore of Blackwater Lake, unconscious and barely breathing. He was rushed to the hospital. After hours of work, the doctors were able to bring Tom back just long enough to recount the story you’ve just heard, but right when he was about to tell what happened next, he collapsed. Tom was dead. To this day, nobody knows what happened that night on Blackwater Lake.

It’s an unsatisfactory ending, I know. It’s always intrigued me, though. You see, the security at Eastland Missionary Camp was never exactly tight, at least not in the daytime. There would always be some kid who decided to wander off somewhere, not that he or she ever got very far. But come nightfall, I know for a fact that there were at least ten people out at all times, patrolling the campgrounds. You could always look through the windows at night and see people walking around with flashlights and even stranger, there was always one or two people with shotguns. I had always assumed it was in case any bears showed up, but in my research I’ve found that bears are almost unheard of in that area.

Looking back now, there was always a bit of a bizarre air to the camp. There were a lot of buildings that seemed run down, some of them almost seeming like safety hazards. There were at least three chapels on the grounds but there was one that we all knew about, but were told never to enter; I assume because it was almost definitely on the verge of collapsing.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions. A lot of the creep factor of Eastland Missionary Camp just came from the fact that it was a very traditionally religious camp with very little funding. Honestly, I wouldn’t even be looking into it if it hadn’t been for an experience I had in 2010, just two years after the camp closed. I was on my way to a friend’s house and had gotten held up due to traffic. I realized that I could take a detour through the town where the camp used to be. I figured I may as well see if it was still around and decided to drive down that way. This was a rather stupid decision, since I didn’t quite remember where the camp was and by the time I found the road it was on, it was getting pretty dark.

I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that the camp had closed down. What I was surprised about, was the land was now surrounded by tall fence, lined with barbed wire; and I’m certain that I saw people wandering inside with flashlights. I didn’t stick around long. The gate was marked with a “restricted area” sign and something about being the “property of the United States government”. Again, I don’t want to jump to conclusions. The obvious answer is that the camp was just condemned or seized by the bank or something. But that doesn’t explain all the activity I saw there.

It was there that my research started, and it is here that I suppose my research must end. Five years of searching, started out as a hobby and soon became an obsession. My girlfriend is threatening to leave me if I take this any further. The conclusion I’ve come to is simply that if something weird went on at Eastland Missionary Camp, then I’ll probably never know what it was. I’ll just have to live with that.

Still, one thought plagues my mind like a virus, refusing to let go. I interviewed Reverend Eastland’s widow, Louise in 2010. By that time, she was in her 80’s and well within a state of dementia. Still, I managed to catch her on what was one of her good days and she gave me a good chunk of the information I have. That isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is what she said after I brought up how the reverend had died of a heart attack in the late 1970’s.

She shook her head and looked at me blankly. “He didn’t have a heart attack,” she said. “They found him on the shore of Blackwater Lake.”

She refused to speak with me any further after that.

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