Earthquakes in Mid-Atlantic states are not infrequent seismic occurrences

The state has felt its share of quakes, particularly during the 1880s

July 17, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

It's the cliche reaction voiced by those who have just experienced an earthquake, and it seems to be a staple of earthquake reporting.

"It sounded like a train or a heavy truck going by the house," witnesses explain, even though they might live miles from the nearest railroad line or highway, and this reaction is dutifully regurgitated in newspaper and TV accounts.

It's only when the china starts tinkling, the chandelier starts to sway a bit, the bed and windows vibrate that "survivors" really get nervous and become a little more colorfully creative about the "Big One" with reporters.

Marylanders, along with their brethren in nearby Pennsylvania, Washington and Virginia, were jarred awake about 5 a.m. Friday to a little rocking and rolling as a 3.6-magnitude quake, centered near Germantown, shook things up a bit.

There were no reports of damage save for some momentary jangled nerves, even though the Maryland Geological Survey reported on its website that Friday's jolt may have been the strongest to hit the state since a 3.5 quake shook up Annapolis on April 24, 1758. Another quake centered in Phoenix, Baltimore County, in 1939 was estimated between 3.5 and 3.7.

While not approaching the violence and variety of earthquakes produced by the grating of the ever-shifting plates of the San Andreas fault beneath California, the seismic activity in Maryland can be blamed on the Marticville line.

The what?

The Marticville line marks two rock strata that roughly parallel the Mason-Dixon line and seem to be the cauldron for the state's earthquakes.

However, most of Maryland lies in a "seismic risk zone 1," which means that only minor earthquake damage can be expected in these parts.

James F. Devine, who is the U.S. Geological Survey's senior director of science, told The Baltimore Sun in a 1979 article that there is enough seismic activity going on in Maryland that residents can expect to experience at least one temblor during their lifetimes.

The state capital got whacked again in 1786, and as the 1800s unfolded, along came appreciable seismic activity.

The series of three magnitude 8 earthquakes that emanated from New Madrid, Mo., during the winter of 1811-1812 caused great damage, and during one 8.0 quake, the Mississippi River became so roiled that it flowed backward.

A rumble from the Jan. 23, 1812, New Madrid temblor caused the 250-foot-high State House in Annapolis, some 750 miles from the New Madrid fault line, to seriously vibrate for five minutes.

As the vibrations continued, skaters on the Chesapeake Bay became frightened and headed for the shore as the ice beneath them began to buckle and break.

Scientists today report that the New Madrid Seismic Zone is far from quiet and is considered to be the greatest seismic risk east of the Rockies.

For Maryland, the 1880s seemed to be a time for abundant earthquakes.

The Jan. 5, 1885, quake centered in Frederick County covered more than 3,500 square miles in Maryland and Virginia and caused terrified residents of Frederick to flee into the streets searching for what "sounded like a caravan of wagons passing over the cobblestones," reported The Sun.

The granddaddy of Victorian quakes struck Aug. 31, 1886, when a temblor estimated between 6.6 and 7.3 struck near Charleston, S.C., and inflicted on the city perhaps the greatest damage since the Civil War.

The quake, which was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Cuba and Bermuda, claimed nearly 60 lives and inflicted $6 million in structural damage.

The quake, which was felt in Baltimore about 9:50 p.m. for two full minutes, threw Baltimoreans who had retired for the night out of bed while cupboards suddenly emptied themselves of dishes that spilled to the floor, reported The Sun.

East Coast telegraphers began sending messages from community to community, city to city, to assess damage.

Only Charleston failed to answer as an ominous silence fell over the wires. The city's telegraph and telephone network had been wrecked in the quake, which rendered outside communication impossible.

At Charles and Eager streets, late-night denizens of the Maryland Club enjoying one last cigar, brandy or bridge hand said they thought a wall of a nearby building must have fallen into the street, while residents of Plum Alley fled to the streets thinking their "houses were haunted," the newspaper reported.

In the city room of The Sun's old headquarters in the Iron Building, the phones rang and rang for hours, with callers anxious for news of what had happened.

"Coming as the shaking did at a time of the year when malaria is supposed to stalk about, it was suggested that, perhaps the earth was having its little malarial attack due to the sudden drop of the thermometer yesterday," reported The Sun the next morning.

"Whatever caused the shock, there was a very perceptible tremor of the earth about five minutes past ten o'clock and continued for half a minute," the newspaper reported.

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