Friday marks 200th anniversary of New Madrid earthquake

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Henderson-Wright house, demolished in 1917, is shown at Themis and Middle streets in Cape Girardeau. Built in 1811, the house survived the New Madrid earthquake and was used as the city’s first courthouse. (Southeast Missourian file)
James Bollwerk with the University of Memphis seismic network technical support adjusts the settings on the seismometer Wednesday at the New Madrid Historical Museum. The interactive seismometer is part of the museum’s new 1811-1812 Earthquake exhibit. (Laura Simon)

In the early morning hours of a cold December day, New Madrid, Mo., resident Eliza Bryan was visited by violence.

In an 1816 letter to her friend Lorenzo Dow, she recounted a night five years earlier when she experienced the first of three major earthquakes that would literally rock the central region of the United States and shake it to its core.

Bryan described the earthquake of Dec. 16, 1811, as "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 sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness."

Her firsthand account of the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquake Sequence, as the series is known to the United States Geological Survey, is one of few. At the time, Southeast Missouri was sparsely populated.

Friday marks the 200-year anniversary of the first earthquake, which according to the USGS measured around a magnitude of 7.7. Upcoming bicentennial anniversaries are Jan. 23 and Feb. 7 for quakes that reportedly measured magnitude-7.5 and 7.7 respectively. Newspaper articles from the time report that the quakes were felt as far away as Washington, D.C., and caused church bells to ring in Boston.

A new earthquake-themed exhibit opening at the New Madrid Historical Museum in New Madrid coincides with the anniversary of the quakes. Over the weekend, a special event was held at the Dixie Theatre in New Madrid to celebrate the exhibit opening, said Ann Copeland, one of the museum's board members. Dr. David Stewart, former director of the Center for Earthquake Studies, which closed at Southeast Missouri State University in 2003, interviewed an actress playing Bryan about her experience in the earthquake. Attendees were then invited to view the new exhibit, Copeland said, which tells the history of the earthquakes, how earthquakes are formed, shows the changing seismic levels in New Madrid, recounts the economic problems caused by the earthquakes and gives information on earthquake preparedness. There is also a display of old straps and glues that were once used to earthquake-proof homes, she said.

Copeland said the interest in the exhibit has been steady, and many schools have booked trips and are calling for reservations. The museum will host more events Friday to celebrate its opening. A local Catholic priest will bless the exhibit and a local author, Mary Sue Anton, will be present to sign copies of a book she wrote about the history of New Madrid, Copeland said. Admission to the museum is free.

Closer to home

While structures in and near New Madrid were mostly damaged beyond repair, according to multiple historical accounts and records of the earthquakes, a few structures from the period are still standing in and near Cape Girardeau, including the 1795 log cabin-turned-colonial-style home on South Silver Springs Road owned by Carl Armstrong.

Armstrong showed visitors who were participating in the Lutheran Family and Children's Services Holiday Home tour this year the cracks caused by the earthquakes in the interior log walls of his home.

Armstrong's home was originally a two-story cabin that was once part of a larger farm settlement. While structures built with masonry and brick mostly did not survive the earthquakes and the thousands of resulting aftershocks, Armstrong's home, built with logs in a dovetail interlocking design, suffered what appears today to be minor damage.

"We don't really know how much damage the earthquake did here," said Armstrong of the house.

There haven't been any earthquakes he can recall since he lived in the house that he worried would further hurt the structure, although he said his sister told of a time when an earthquake in Alaska muddied wells on the property.

Another structure known to survive the earthquakes was torn down in 1917. The Henderson-Wright house at the intersection of Themis and Middle streets was built in 1811 and served as the city's first courthouse.

Damage then and now

The earthquakes of 1811-1812 formed new lakes in the region and caused changes in the course of the Mississippi River that are still visible today. It is unknown how many people actually died as a result of the quakes. The largest earthquakes since occurred Jan. 4, 1843, and Oct. 31, 1895, with magnitude estimates of 6.3 and 6.7 respectively, according to a gathering of research findings from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

A study conducted in 2006 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that if similar events occurred today, depending on the time of day an earthquake occurred, a magnitude-7.7 quake could kill between 3,200 and 4,300 people and injure up to 70,000. Monetary losses from such an event could be substantial. Depending on where the epicenter of an earthquake occurred, cities like St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., and everywhere in between could experience heavy damage, researchers say.

In the future

There has long been debate over if and when an earthquake or series of quakes similar to the 1811-1812 series will occur. Over the years, predictions have evolved with changing technology and developed into more or less dramatic playouts, depending on who does a study.

According to the USGS, the probability for an earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone measuring 6.0 or greater is 25 to 40 percent likely in the next 50 years. There is a 7 to 10 percent probability for a magnitude-7.5 to magnitude-8.0 earthquake to occur within the next 50 years.

In the late summer of 1990, a scientist named Iben Browning predicted a large earthquake would occur in December that year.

"There's probably a 50-50 chance of a Richter 7-plus earthquake on the New Madrid fault on or around the evening of Dec. 2 or the morning of Dec. 3," Browning told an interviewer.

Media coverage of the prediction drove some in Southeast Missouri to believe Browning enough to call off classes at area schools while others didn't take the prediction seriously. No such earthquake occurred.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone contains several faults which caused the 1811-1812 series of quakes. The faults extend from near Cairo, Ill., south into Northeast Arkansas. The number of small quakes produced by the faults average around 200 per year, researchers say.


Pertinent address:

New Madrid, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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