Wednesday, September 21, 2016

We felt Charleston's 1886 earthquake, too

After the 1886 Charleston earthquake.

Back on Sept. 3, I was sitting here at the keyboard typing early on a Saturday morning when the house creaked, then rolled a little under me. 

After deciding I wasn't having a dizzy spell, the next step was to go outside to see if something had gone wrong with the foundation. Then my friend Lana Jean, who lives in Oklahoma, posted "Earthquake!" on Facebook. 

As it turned out, Iowans were feeling a 5.6 magnitude quake centered near Pawnee, that state, that had occurred at 7:02 a.m., since generally attributed to fracking. Although similar shakes have happened, historically, this is not the sort of thing Iowans are used to. My previous encounter with a tremor was many years ago while living in Iowa City.

Some weeks later, looking as I tend to do for largely irrelevant historical footnotes, it developed that had I been sitting here (not in front of a computer, of course) during the late evening of Aug. 31, 1886, I might have experienced something similar.

That would have been the great Charleston earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7, that remains one of the most powerful and damaging to hit the East Coast of the United States. An estimated 60 people died and property damage in Charleston and elsewhere in the region ranged from $5-6 million --- a considerable chunk of change 130 years ago. Hardly a building in historic Charleston emerged without damage. The shock was felt across the eastern half of the United States, even mildly on the western shore of the Mississippi in Iowa.

Coverage in the Chariton newspapers was minimal, but I did find this paragraph in The Democrat of Sept. 9, 1886:

"Chariton will not be 'downed' by anybody. The earthquake shocks which were distinctly felt in all the cities in the east and south on Tuesday evening were felt in Chariton. The Odd Fellows lodge in this place was in session, at their  hall in the Union block. About nine o'clock the building shook very perceptibly --- so much so in fact that two or three of the brethren left the hall, fearful of some dire calamity."

The Odd Fellows hall, at the time, was on the third floor of the relatively new Union Block.

The daily Iowa State Register, published in Des Moines, carried a couple of very brief reports about the tremor, datelined Burlington and Dubuque, in its edition of Wednesday, Sept. 1.

At Burlington, The Register reported, "A slight shock of earthquake was felt here at 9 o'clock this (Aug. 31) evening. Some of the occupants of high buildings beat a hasty retreat to the streets. No damange done."

And at Dubuque, "An earthquake shock was felt here at 8:58 this (Aug. 31) evening. It shook tall buildings severely, and part of the audience in the opera house ran out and for a moment there was a scene of confusion. The printers in the top story of The Herald office ran from the building, and guests ran from the upper rooms in the hotels."

Most earthquakes occur along the edges of plates, but the Charleston quake and others along the East Coast are characterized as "intraplate," a phenomenon still under study. What are called "microearthquakes" continue to occur in the region of the Charleston quake and generally are considered to be aftershocks of the 1886 event.

A little closer to home, the New Madrid (Missouri) quake (magnitude 7.5-7.9) of Dec. 16, 1811, also was intraplate. It remains the most powerful earthquake in recorded history east of the Rockies.

There wasn't a soul armed with paper, pen and a pot of ink in Iowa at the time, however, so we have no idea how that quake felt here. There are those who predict, however, that another quake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone is about due. So perhaps we'll find out. 

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