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The New Madrid Earthquake: 200 Years Later

Posted: 08/23/11 10:53 PM ET

If you think this week's East Coast tremblor was disconcerting, consider that this is the 200th anniversary of the Mother of All American Earthquakes.

About 2 a.m. in the early morning of December 16, 1811, the young painter John James Audubon was riding across the Big Barrens, a large grassland in western Kentucky, when his horse suddenly froze and splayed out its legs as if walking on a smooth sheet of ice. "At that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move from their very roots," Audubon recalled. "The ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake."

On that same evening, the steamboat New Orleans, the first steam-powered boat ever to run on western waters, was on its trial voyage down the Ohio. The New Orleans had been built in Pittsburgh by Nicholas Roosevelt, great uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, with Robert Fulton, and launched just a few weeks earlier. Aboard was a skeleton crew, along with Roosevelt, his wife Lydia, and their newborn son. Below the Falls of the Ohio, the crew noticed trees and bushes along the shore heaving and waving silently, even though it was a windless night. Alarmed at the sight of riverbanks beginning to cave in, they tied up on an island, only to discover in the morning that the island had vanished and their mooring line plunged straight into the water, drawn as tightly as a violin string. They quickly cut the vessel free.

Both Audubon and the Roosevelts were near the epicenter of one of the great earthquakes in recorded history and largest ever in North America. It was the first in a series of three immense quakes in 1811-12 -- and as many as 2,000 smaller ones -- that were felt across the entire eastern U.S. and as far away as Quebec City. Stone walls cracked in St. Louis. Church bells rang out in Charleston. Seismologists estimate their intensity as 8.4 to 8.7 on the Richter scale, compared with 6.6 for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The closest town to the epicenter was New Madrid, once known as L'Anse à la Graisse ("Cove of Grease") for its abundant bear and buffalo. The explorer William Clark had traveled to New Madrid 16 years earlier on a military mission to protest the Spanish fortifications there. Now the Cove of Grease was a scene of Goya-esque horrors. The naturalist John Bradbury was on his way down the Mississippi and had tied up near the second Chickasaw Bluff when he was jolted awake by a "most tremendous noise... All nature seemed running into chaos," he wrote, "as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks rumbled into the water."Empty boats drifted by, disconcertingly, carrying neither passengers nor cargo. The ground quivered like "the flesh of a beef just killed," as one person put it. In the town of New Madrid, Lorenzo Dow heard "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."

Throughout the New Madrid seismic zone "sand blows" erupted, sprouting mud and debris into the air. The Mississippi's waters filled with masses of oleaginous foam and surged back up creeks. Briefly, the entire river seemed to flow backwards, creating a waterfall whose roaring could be heard as far as New Madrid itself. (The falls quickly disappeared as its sand and mud base washed away.)

In Louisville, George Heinrich Crist was knocked out of his bed by the first shock and a roar "I thought would leave us deaf if we lived. It was not a storm. When you could hear, all you cold hear was screams from people and animals. It was the worst thing I have ever witnessed. It was still dark and you could not see nothing. ... You should not hold onto nothing neither man or woman was strong enough -- the shaking would knock you lose like knocking hickory nuts out of a tree." Writing about the earthquake a few months later, Clark observed that New Madrid had been "nearly depopulated" in the aftermath. St. Louis had escaped with minimal damage, and "one chimney was thrown down in the American Bottom."

Many Americans thought the upheaval was related to another extraordinary natural phenomenon that year. In March an enormous comet had appeared low in the southern sky. It steadily brightened, and by the fall the Great Comet of 1811 was seen around the world, with a tail stretching 17° across the sky and a head as large in diameter as the sun. Farmers who first saw the steamboat New Orleans on the Ohio, belching flames and sparks into the nighttime sky, were persuaded that the comet had fallen into the river.

Indians and some whites interpreted the earthquake and comet as divine signals, perhaps initiated by Tecumseh after the Battle of Tippecanoe. In one of the most bizarre episodes of this unsettling year, two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews, Lilburn and Isham Lewis, were charged with killing a slave in Kentucky on the night of the first earthquake after the body's decapitated head rolled into view during an aftershock seven weeks later.

Let's hope that the next Big One is not soon ....