This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 6, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
There are stories or legends about strange sounds being emitted from a number of rivers in the United States, but it seems to me the largest number of rivers emitting mysterious sounds are in Texas. There’s an unexplainable moaning sound, frequently heard in Anchorage, Alaska, but locals aren’t actually sure it’s coming from their river, the Eagle River.
In San Felipe, Texas, however, the terrifying sound of a screaming woman does come from the river, or so legend says, and if you answer this phantom’s distress call, she will drown you.
Interestingly enough, most of the legends about eerie river sounds describe the voices of phantom women. In a couple instances, the legends for two different rivers are so similar, they sounds like the same story.
“The Legend of the Weeping Woman” is told about the Pecos River, which flows from New Mexico through Texas into the Rio Grande. The legend tells of a beautiful, thin-as-a-skeleton, woman with long black hair and wearing a long white gown. She appears either walking along the banks of the river, or floating on the water currents, wailing and weeping. According to the ancient tale, she had thrown her children into the river, and then spent the rest of her life looking and wailing for them. The river now emits her wailing sound.
Whimpering is the sound heard from the Frio River in Uvalde County. The legend which developed about the whimpering sound tells of visitors who had seen apparitions on the river where the sound is coming from. They described the apparitions as looking like three nuns dressed in white, skating on the water. The accounts I remember did not explain why they were whimpering, or maybe I’m not remembering it right.
According to scientists, rivers and other bodies of water do make sounds; rivers “burble” and oceans “roar,” but not because of ghosts, phantoms, or other supernatural creatures.
Stephanie Curin, in an article on americanrivers.org, talks about “hearing the music” of the Bear River near Colfax, California. The natural music includes the sound of huge amounts of rushing water, the crashing of water against barriers, and the river’s hum during quiet time at night. I’m sure it would be easy for legends about paranormal sounds to develop out of hearing these natural sounds, though that was not the case in Curin’s article. And there are no legends about Bear River.
I’ve saved our river, the San Bernard, until last, as it is the only one said to emit musical sounds. According to newspaper and magazine accounts during the past hundred years, our river emitted the sound of the violin, so observers called it the “Singing River” (does a violin “sing”?). I have not heard any reports recently about our river playing the violin, however.
In early newspaper reports, wherein it was called the “Singing River,” the violin sounds were not heard in Austin County, where the Bernard begins, nor in Wharton County, where I live, but in Brazoria County, where the river empties into the Gulf.
The violin sounds occur where the San Bernard flows through the little community of River’s End near the town of Brazoria. In recent times, The Texas Facts, published in Brazoria County, presented the various legends about the phantom fiddler who played the same tune for a hundred years. While each tale is somewhat different, scientific-minded folks say the violin sounds were caused by escaping gas.
So, our river plays the violin where it ends. But if began in New Ulm, Texas, in Austin County. The first time, as far as my research reveals, the legend of the San Bernard River emitting violin sounds, and called the “Singing River,” appeared in a newspaper was in 1899. William A. Trenckmann, the Editor of The Bellville Wochenblatt, included the legend in a supplement to this German-language newspaper. He lived a long way from where the sound of a violin was heard, so the legend must have been widely known and told.
How enchanting to live in East Bernard, the town through which flows the river that plays the violin!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.