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Earthquakes in New Madrid, Missouri, USA

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On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do - the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi - the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed - formed a scene truly horrible
- Eliza Bryan, earthquake survivor

Sometimes some North Americans think of earthquakes as disasters that only affect the state of California. Or, if they have a more cosmopolitan outlook, things that only affect Japan.

But three of the largest earthquakes in the United States weren't in California. They were centred around New Madrid, Missouri, in the heart of the Mississippi River Valley, in the winter of 1811 - 1812. The first of these magnitude 8+* quakes struck on 16 December, 1811, and was so strong that the shock made church bells ring in Boston, over a thousand miles away. The other two major quakes struck on 23 January and 7 February, 1812, but there were thousands of smaller shocks before, in-between, and after.

Effects noted from these quakes included:

  • The Mississippi River changed course so rapidly that fish were left behind, stranded on the banks.
  • Boats were thrown from the river to a distance of a quarter of a mile in some cases.
  • 150,000 acres of trees were knocked over by the shock.
  • Five towns in three states were destroyed entirely.
  • Mirrors cracked and clocks stopped in Charleston, South Carolina.

Though it seems there is not an official casualty count (probably none exists, since the area at the time was part of the frontier of westward expansion), it appears that no more than several hundred people were killed. If such an event should happen today1, it could conceivably kill millions in this thickly-populated section of the USA. It's a sobering thought to contemplate.

1There is geological evidence suggesting hundreds or thousands of years of activity along the New Madrid fault.

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