When another disaster befell the U.S.


Earthquakes struck Missouri in 1811-1812

Back Story

Taking Note of History

September 10, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Jay Feldman, author of the recently published When The Mississippi Ran Backwards, is thinking a lot these days about the devastation left in the Mississippi River Valley by Hurricane Katrina and that from the New Madrid, Mo., earthquakes nearly 200 years ago.

"The New Madrid was the nation's first recorded major disaster, and it was felt in such a wide area from Boston to New Orleans, and from Detroit to New York City," Feldman said in a telephone interview from his Davis, Calif., home. "But it's largely been forgotten."

Feldman had planned several years ago to write a historical novel set against the backdrop of the three magnitude-8 earthquakes that rocked the southeastern Missouri Bootheel area during the winter of 1811-1812.

"Once I started researching the earthquakes, I realized that the confluence of forces and events that came to bear was too far-fetched for fiction," said Feldman, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who has written for Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and other national publications. He also has written for the stage, film and television, including the critically acclaimed series Brooklyn Bridge.

In addition to telling the story of the New Madrid earthquakes, Feldman weaves a tapestry of social and political history, including violence on the frontier, greed, government corruption, environmental degradation and race relations.

"So many of those same issues from 200 years ago, we're still dealing with in the 21st century," Feldman said.

On Dec. 16, 1811, residents of New Madrid were awakened a little after 2 a.m.

Stress that had been slowly building for 350 years within what geologists call the New Madrid Seismic Zone finally let go in a violent shaking of the earth that lasted not seconds but minutes.

"At a quarter past the hour, there was a sudden loud rumbling, likened in may eyewitness accounts to distant thunder, or the rolling of wagons across pavement, or a deafening crash resembling `the discharge of heavy artillery,'" wrote Feldman.

"All at once, the earth began moving, and throughout New Madrid, sleepers were jolted from their slumber and sent flying from their beds, while articles of furniture were propelled across rooms. The wooden houses shook and jumped, as men, women, and children went shrieking into the streets in their nightclothes. ... Quickly there ensued a `complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness,' as Eliza Bryan wrote in her oft-cited account."

Dawn brought another terrifying tremor greater than the initial jolt, and because it was before the development of the Richter scale, scientists have calculated that it probably would have registered an 8.0.

While New Madrid suffered extensive damage, the town of Little Prairie, about 30 miles away, was totally destroyed. Between Dec. 16, 1811, and April 1812, the Mississippi River Valley was roiled by a chain of 2,000 tremors and three that measured 8.0 on what would become the Richter scale.

"A million and a half square miles were affected, and the earth was in constant movement for nearly four months. Towns were destroyed, and an eighteen-mile-long by five-mile-wide lake was created, and the Mississippi temporarily ran backward," wrote Feldman.

"Swamps became dry land and dry land became lakes. The Mississippi rerouted itself in places and made enormous changes," Feldman said. "Miles and miles of riverbank caved in and flooding was very severe. It was comparable to the tsunami and had the same force. It was like what we're seeing today on the Gulf Coast."

Tossed from its bank, the Mississippi went on a rampage as it rose to a height of 30 feet sweeping away everything in its path - boats, houses, forests.

The crew aboard the steamer New Orleans that had stopped for the night at Island 32, near New Madrid, was stunned when it went on deck the next morning to find that the ship was no longer anchored to the island. It had disappeared.

The Jan. 23, 1812, rumble caused the 250-foot-high State House in Annapolis, about 750 miles away from New Madrid, to vibrate for more than five minutes, while frightened ice skaters on the Chesapeake Bay headed for shore as the ice began to buckle and break.

As this was the Western frontier at the time and scarcely populated, loss of life was minimal. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is far from quiet and is considered by scientists to be the greatest seismic risk east of the Rocky Mountains.

And with such cities as Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati, the results would be quite different if quakes of such proportions struck the area again. Feldman suggests that hundreds of thousands could lose their lives.

In June, the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information reported that "strain is accumulating" on the seismic zone.

"I don't want to alarm anyone," Feldman said. "It's not a matter of when - it could be 200 years or it could be tomorrow - but it's going to happen again."

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