Thursday, September, 22, 2005

Lois Swanee
Museum Curator

Experiencing earthquakes around the globe

Before weathermen, before television and radio, in the winter of 1811-12, the world witnessed a natural disaster of epic proportions. The whole world was shaking with terrible earthquakes and extremely frigid temperatures. Of course, we don’t know too much about it here as Mississippi wasn’t a state until December 10, 1817, but Mississippi was here and history was already being made in south Mississippi.

In 1974 (I think) I was sitting in the Baptist church one night when things began to sway and we were experiencing an earthquake of 4. on the Richter scale. Another earthquake was on a trip to Costa Rica, walking across the floor, the floor began to roll. There was at that time a major earthquake in Honduras, two countries away. From there I went to California and upon arriving there and putting my feet on the ground, there was an earthquake.

Since it is over and past, I thought you might enjoy this story that was sent to The South Reporter of a personal account (not mine, I’m not that old!) of the earthquake that happened in the winter of 1811 to 1812 up and down the Mississippi River that formed Reelfoot Lake. The South Reporter gave me the account and it was so fascinating I thought you would be interested in it. The letter was brought to The South Reporter by Joe Cox of Waterford.

The letter that follows was written in 1876 to Reverend Lorenzo Dow, geographically describing the earthquake of 1811 and the consequent formation of Reelfoot Lake. 

“Dear Brother; I have just received your kind letter, written some three or four weeks ago, requesting me to give you a description of the late horrible visitation of Providence, and the sinking of Reelfoot Lake in this section.

The morning of December 15, 1811, was cloudy and a dense fog prevailed, and toward nightfall the heavens showed signs of distress. On the following morning, the 16th, about five o’clock a.m., we felt the shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a rumbling noise resembling the distant firing of a cannon, which was followed in a few minutes of the complete saturation of atmosphere with sulphurous vapor. The moon was shining brilliantly, but the sulphurous vapor caused the earth to be wrapped in absolute darkness.

The wailing inhabitants, the stampede of fowl and beasts, the noise of falling timber, the roaring of the Mississippi --- the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes – formed a scene too appalling to conceive of. Then until daylight a number of lighter shocks occurred, one that was more violent and severe than the first one, and the terror which prevailed after the first shock was now even worse than before.

The people fled hither and yon, supposing that there was less danger at a distance from the river, which was boiling, foaming and roaring terrifically. Men, women and children gave up in despair, some praying and others fainting, so great was their fear.

There were light shocks each day until January 23, 1812, when one as hard as the first occurred, followed by the same phenomena. From this time until February 4 the earth was in continual agitation, visibly wading as a gentle sea. That day a shock, almost as severe as the others, occurred and on the 8th, about sunrise, a concussion took place, so much more violent than the others that it was called “the hard shock”.

The earth was transformed into total darkness, the chickens went back to roost, the cows mooed and the frightened horses pitifully neighed. At first the Mississippi River seemed to recede from its banks, and its waters, gathering up like a mountain, leaving for a short period of time many boats that were passing down the river, on the bottom of the river, during which time the crews escaped to land in safety.

The river rose ten to fifteen feet perpendicularly. Expanding, as it were, at the same time the banks were overflowed with a retrograde current. The river falling immediately, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees and much cattle and stock. 

A great many fish were left on the banks, being unable to keep up with the water, and an old canoe, antique in construction, was washed ashore. The river was a mass of floating wrecks of boats, and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.

In the hard shocks described, the earth was horribly lacerated — the surface from time to time was covered over of uneven depths by the sand which issued from the fissures, which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water.

In many places, however, there was a substance resembling coal thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of the fissures or irregular breaks were. The site of New Madrid, Missouri, was settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than half a mile below that town there does not appear to be any alteration of the river, but back from the river a short distance the numerous large ponds or lakes, which covered a great part of the country, were totally dried up. The beds of some of them bulge about their former banks several feet. 

The most remarkable feature of all the entire disturbances, which was not generally known for some months afterwards, was the discovery of a huge lake on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River, upward of 25 miles long and from one-half to eight miles in width. This lake was later called Reelfoot Lake. There are places in it the bottom of which has never been found, though many efforts have been make to ascertain the depth of these places.

The lake has communication with the Mississippi River at both ends, and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, it not the whole, of the Mississippi will pass that way. In the last year or so an herb, resembling moss, has literally covered the surface of the lake, and during the winter months wild fowls, such as ducks, geese, cranes, etc., winter on the lake and eat this moss as food. Deer and other animals seem to enjoy it.

It is said that where the lake was formed was a vast area of fine timbered lands, and in places only the tops of trees can be seen. The lake runs north and south, and each end has a neck shape, widening out about the center, or nearer the northern terminus than the center. The water in it does not seem to rise and lower to any marked degree, and the lake is destined to become the great hunting and fishing resort of the west.

It is said that where this lake was formed was formerly the Indians’ hunting grounds, and also where they held their annual war dances; but since the terrible visitation of the earthquake it is a rare thing that one ventures in that vicinity. By some method, known only to themselves, they marked a warning on the trees for other Indians to keep away.

Most of those who fled from the vicinity during the hard shocks returned, but always greatly alarmed at the slightest trembling of the earth. We have, since their commencement in 1811, and occasionally, felt light shocks. Hardly a week passes but I feel one. There were two the past winter, much more severe than we have felt them for several years before. Since then, however, they are lighter than ever, and as the months and years pass the inhabitants are becoming more and more reconciled to the surroundings.

One circumstance worthy of mention is: This section was once subject to severe thunder, but for a long time previous to the first shocks there was no thunder at all and but very little since.”

“Respectfully yours.
E. Bryan, New Madrid, MO.”

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