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Oyler: 1811 New Madrid earthquakes were most severe in North America

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

During our Thanksgiving visit in Illinois with our daughter Elizabeth and her family, I began to read a book just published by one of their friends, Dr. Conevery Bolton Valencius. Conevery was a colleague of theirs at Washington University in St. Louis; she currently is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.

Her book, entitled “The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes,” discusses the most severe earthquakes ever recorded in North America and speculates on the fact that the general public is unaware of their existence. By coincidence she recently was a guest speaker at Carnegie Mellon on this subject; I was fortunate to be able to attend her lecture.

The events in question occurred in the mid-Mississippi Valley on Dec. 16, 1811; Jan. 23, 1812; and Feb. 7, 1812; and were accompanied by thousands of smaller aftershocks. Since the epicenter was near the small river village of New Madrid, the series of quakes have been identified with that community. At that time, New Madrid was in the Louisiana Territory, acquired from Napoleon eight years earlier as part of the Louisiana Purchase. He had acquired it from Spain in 1800.

The New Madrid settlement was founded by Spanish governor Miro in 1776. His agent, Revolutionary War Col. George Morgan, brought a party of German immigrants west to populate the settlement in 1789. Readers of this column are familiar with Col. Morgan, who eventually built a mansion just north of Canonsburg, called Morganza. Today, New Madrid is in southeastern Missouri.

The New Madrid earthquakes were remarkable for their extent; seismologists believe they were felt 500 miles away. The Mississippi River sloshed back and forth like water in a bathtub. Great quantities of lignite, sand and warm water spouted out of the ground. Lightning flashed in the sky. Church bells in Charleston, S.C., and in Toronto, Canada, were rung by the tremor. Residents of Pittsburgh reported intense shaking. President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, felt them in the White House.

The speaker attempted to address the fact that nearly no one today is aware of the New Madrid seismic events, while those of the 20th century are a major part of our history. One reason, of course, is the fact that there were very few white Americans in the region where the most severe damage occurred. This area was the location of numerous Native American settlements; their destruction was barely mentioned in the rest of the country.

A major consequence of these earthquakes was the transformation of the St. Francis River valley. Prior to 1811, the St. Francis was a major tributary of the lower Mississippi, paralleling it from a source in Missouri for several hundred miles through Arkansas. Historians believe the Native American settlements along the St. Francis were part of a highly developed culture, one that was destroyed by the earthquakes, which left a series of impassable swamplands in an area that had been prosperous.

An interesting sidelight of these episodes was the fact that the first steamboat on the Ohio River was right in the midst of them. Following Robert Fulton and Nicholas Roosevelt's success with the Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807, they elected to have a large sidewheeler built in Pittsburgh for commerce on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The 148-foot long vessel was built for $38,000 and could transport 60 passengers comfortably.

The maiden voyage of the New Orleans was disrupted at Louisville, Ky., where they had to wait a month for higher water so they could navigate the “Falls of the Ohio.” When the first New Madrid tremor hit, they were near Owensboro, Ky., about 200 miles east of the epicenter. The remainder of their trip to New Orleans was a nightmare of uprooted trees, wrecked boats and destroyed river towns. One night the island to which they were tied up quietly sank into the river.

Dr. Valencius mentioned that seismologists today are still puzzled regarding “mid-continent earthquakes.' They can easily explain seismic activity at tectonic plate boundaries, like the San Andreas Fault, because their model is based on huge (100 miles thick) tectonic plates running into each other. But what explains huge tremors in the middle of these plates? I suspect any good solid mechanics specialist could prove that conventional plate buckling technology will predict results just like New Madrid.

I enjoyed the lecture and am looking forward to reading the rest of the speaker's book. I wonder what old Pittsburgh newspaper archives have to say about these events and about Col. Morgan and Nicholas Roosevelt.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343- 1652 or

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