Although the West Coast is known for its earthquake activity, according to the USGS (United States Geological Service), the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 were some of the worst that occurred since Europeans arrived in the United States. Named after the settlement between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi where the greatest damage occurred three primary quakes occurred (between December 16, 1811 and February 12, 1812) with hundreds of major aftershocks. The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks was 10 times larger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Because there were no seismographs that measure the strength of an earthquake at that time, and very few people in the New Madrid region, the estimated magnitudes of this series of earthquakes vary considerably and depend on modern researchers’ interpretations of journals, newspaper reports, and other accounts of the ground shaking and damage. Whatever the strength of the earthquakes, damage was horrific and extensive.
In general, the earthquakes caused the ground to rise and fall – bending the trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Deep seated landslides occurred along the steeper bluffs and hillslides; large areas of land were uplifted permanently; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that erupted through fissures or craterlets. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared. Surface fault rupturing from these earthquakes has not been detected and was not reported, however. The regions most seriously affected were characterized by raised (over 25 feet in some places) or sunken (as much as 18 feet in the worst-affected areas) lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides.
Chimneys were toppled and log cabins were thrown down as far distant as Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. Coal and sand were ejected from fissures in the swamp land adjacent to the St. Francis River, and local uplifts of the ground and water waves moving upstream gave the illusion that the river was flowing upstream.
George Heinrich Crist wrote of the 23 January 1812 quake: “What are we gonna do? You cannot fight it cause you do not know how. It is not something that you can see. In a storm you can see the sky and it shows dark clouds and you know that you might get strong winds but this you can not see anything but a house that just lays in a pile on the ground – not scattered around and trees that just falls over with the roots still on it. The earth quake or what ever it is come again today. It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost our Amandy Jane in this one – a log fell on her. We will bury her upon the hill under a clump of trees where Besys Ma and Pa is buried. A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end.”
The probability for an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater is significant in the near future, with a 90% chance by the year 2040. A quake with a magnitude equal to that of the 1811- 1812 quakes could result in great loss of life and property damage in the billions of dollars. Scientists believe we could be overdue for a large earthquake and through research and public awareness may be able to prevent such losses.
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