Alligators in the North Fork

Image of Walter Riley holding his prized catch in the December 25, 1952 edition of The Jackson Times.

By Stephen D. Bowling

December 19, 1952 – One of the strangest stories to ever appear in The Jackson Times greeted readers on page one. The grainy photo featured Walter Riley of South Jackson holding his latest catch out of the North Fork of the Kentucky River- a 26-inch alligator.

Riley and a friend were taking advantage of the warmer than normal temperatures in December 1952. The pair chose to fish on the banks of the North Fork between Lick Branch and Stray Branch. During their fishing expedition, Walter hooked a real fighter. After several minutes of fighting, he reeled his catch into the bank only to be shocked by what he saw. It wasn’t the usual catfish, gar, or carp. Not even an overgrown and aggressive sucker. Walter Riley had caught an alligator.

The catch was shown around the neighborhood and curiosity seekers even took pictures with the catch. He drove it to Jackson and a professor at Lees College identified the 26-inch long creature as an American Alligator. The professor believed that the reptile had its origins in Louisiana or Florida. The professor did not know how the animal got to Kentucky, into the Kentucky River, or how it had survived the cold fall and early winter temperatures.

According to most locals, it was believed that someone’s pet had gotten too large and too aggressive so they simply released it into the river. Many years ago, it was a common sight to find vendors beside the road in the south selling pecans, peaches, and occasionally hatchlings (baby alligators). Through the years, state legislators have enacted laws making that practice illegal and unpermitted alligators are not legal in Kentucky.

The same idea that the animal got too big and was released still lives on in urban lore in many large cities where they tell stories of large alligators in the sewer systems and underground waterways. The alligator in the water in Jackson, at least, is no legend. It is the truth and it happened right here in Jackson, Kentucky.

© 2021 by Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Kentucky River and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Alligators in the North Fork

  1. Shannon Raye Ritchie says:

    What happened to the alligator? Do we know?


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