Oyler: 1811 New Madrid earthquakes were most severe in North America
By John Oyler
Published: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Carnegie skatepark construction heats up like the weather
- Carlynton, Chartiers Valley reaffirm security in wake of FR school stabbings
- Voluntary tutor sessions popular with Carlynton students
- Carnegie uses state allocation to update road paving schedule