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Sorting fact from legend: The New Madrid Earthquakes

December 18, 2011 at 01:30 PM

The State Journal-Register

Eyewitness accounts to the New Madrid Earthquakes tell of cracks in the earth spewing sand and coal into the air and waterfalls on the Mississippi River where the riverbed rose and fell.

At least three major earthquakes struck on Dec. 16, 1811 and Jan. 23 and Feb. 7, 1812. Hundreds if not thousands of aftershocks accompanied the quakes.

Some feared the end of the world was at hand.

“I thought the shaking and the loud roaring sound would never stop,” wrote George Heinrich Crist, living in Kentucky not far from where Louisville is today. “You could not hold onto nothing neither man or woman was strong enough - the shaking would knock you loose like knocking hickory nuts out of a tree.”
According to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Mississippi River flowed upstream for a short time as the uplifted riverbed created waves that swamped boats and caused riverbanks to collapse.

There is no official death toll of the New Madrid Earthquakes, only the knowledge that “scores” were never seen again.

According to a USGS map of the 1811-1812 earthquakes’ intensity, central Illinois likely would feel the shaking.

If a similar quake occurred today, the Modified Mercalli Scale says central Illinois would experience dishes breaking, furniture moving or being overturned, some damage to older, poorly built structures.

People would find walking difficult, and many would be frightened enough to run outside.

Possibly more of an issue would be the disruption of transportation and navigation caused by severe damage to interstate highways when the shaking earth became unstable below – a phenomenon known as liquifaction.

Interstate 55, for example, follows the Mississippi River south from St. Louis to New Orleans, Louisiana – a distance about 680 miles.

The historic earthquakes changed some parts of the landscape forever.

A fissure in the Earth eventually filled with water to form Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee.

With few eyewitness accounts available, legends grew.

Henry Schoolcraft, who visited the area a few years after the earthquakes, was moved to poetry:

“The rivers they boiled like a pot over coals, and mortals fell prostrate, and prayed for their souls.”

On the Web:

+ Saint Louis University Earthquake Center:
+ Center for Earthquake Research and Information:
+ New Madrid bicentennial:

Did you feel it?
Turn in earthquakes to the U.S. Geological Survey at

Facts about the New Madrid Seismic Zone

The New Madrid Seismic Zone is a failed rift, a place where the North American Plate tried to tear itself apart when the continents drifted apart hundreds of millions of years ago.

The rift zone is about 150 miles long. The rift is buried beneath hundreds of feet of sediments, making it hard to study and impossible to see. The San Andreas Fault, by contrast, can be seen at the surface.

Because two plates are not colliding or scraping against one another, the New Madrid Seismic Zone does not reload with energy as quickly. Geologists believe sediment removed by erosion over long periods of time took pressure off the rift and allowed it to release energy in the form of an earthquake.

The zone remains an earthquake threat because stored-up energy still is waiting to be released and stresses can still build slowly as the soft mantle beneath the Earth’s crust moves and twists, however slowly.

Because of the harder, cooler and less-fractured nature of rock in the Earth’s crust in the central United States, earthquakes here can damage an area up to 20 times greater than earthquakes in California.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone is overdue for an earthquake of magnitude 6.3.

— Sources: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Center for Earthquake Research and Information, Saint Louis University Earthquake Center, U.S. Geological Survey.

Written accounts from long-ago temblors

“The confusion which seemed to reign on all sides, was awfully alarming. Many acres of land in a body (as was discovered on the approach of day) had sunk to a level with the surface of the river, and some much lower, leaving only the tops of the trees above water. Where the banks did not immediately tumble in, vast rents or fissures were made in the earth to an extent unknown.” — from the journal of Daniel Bedinger

“The series of earthquake-shocks which occurred in the Mississippi Valley, commencing near the close of 1811, and continuing to 1813, were of sufficient violence to modify its surface to a considerable extent, creating yawning fissures, and converting dry land into lakes, some of which are fifty miles in circumference.” —  J. W. Foster describing the earthquakes in his paper “The Mississippi Valley and its Physical Geography.”

“About sunrise another very severe one came on, attended with a perpendicular bouncing that caused the earth to open wide in many place — some eight and 10 feet wide, numbers of less width, and considerable length….

The agitation of the earth was so great that it was with difficulty any could stand on their feet, some could not — The air was very strongly impregnated with a sulfurous smell.” — James Fletcher’s account was published in 1812.

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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