“All nature was in a state of dissolution”
It hit New Madrid, Mo., on Dec. 16, 1811, at 2 in the morning. Settlers ran terror-stricken from tottering and falling buildings to find the earth belching forth great volumes of sand and water. Stores and houses fell into great fissures. The river rose five or six feet in a few minutes. Its color changed to a reddish hue and became thick with mud roiled from its bottom. The surface of the Mississippi was covered with foam and the jets on the shore went higher than the treetops. Within five minutes, the clear serene night became overcast and purplish. The air was filled with a dense, sulfurous vapor that left the inhabitants gasping for breath. The overcast stayed until daybreak; aftershocks (twenty-seven of them) occurring every six to ten minutes accompanied by sudden flashes of fire brought a night full of horror. The fissures ran from southeast to northwest. People felled trees across the direction of cleavage and hung to the trunks to keep from being buried alive. The churchyard with its dead was gone. The great fissures bared the bones of gigantic mastodons and ichthyosauri.
Between New Madrid and Vick’s Plantation, now Vicksburg, there wasn’t the sign of a town remaining along the 300-mile stretch of river. Chimneys were thrown down in Cincinnati. Doors and windows were rattled in Washington, D.C. A church bell rang in Boston and plaster cracked in Virginia and the Carolinas. The three major shocks on Dec. 16, 1811, Jan. 23, 1812, and Feb. 7, 1812 were felt over an area of 1 million square miles. It was felt at the headwaters of the Missouri and Arkansas rivers and on the Gulf of Mexico and in Canada. Jared Brooks at Louisville recorded 1,874 shocks between Dec. 16 and March 15. Aftershocks were felt for more than a year and it almost two years before complete cessation.
It had not been a favorable year in the West. Hunters were alarmed when the squirrels started migrating in herds from north to south. There had been heavy spring floods with the accompanying diseases. A comet of intense brilliancy had appeared in September only to disappear the night of the quake. Superstitious backwoods men recalled a total eclipse of the moon in September.
There had been no warning. Fortunately, there was little loss of life because of the thinly populated area. Between the Mississippi and the Great Plains, Indians reported forests were overthrown and rocks split in two.
An English traveler and botanist, Bradbury, had moored for the night about 150 miles below New Madrid. He was wakened by a tremendous noise. The Mississippi was in such a state of agitation that he feared the boat might upset. The noise he described as being inconceivably loud. “I could hear trees falling and screaming wild fowl, but the boat was still safe at mooring. By the time we got to our fire in the stern, the shock had ceased, but the perpendicular banks both above and below us began to fall into the river in such masses as to nearly sink our boat.” They sent men ashore who found a chasm about four feet wide and eighty feet long. The banks had sunk two feet and at the ends of the chasm, they had fallen into the river. Bradbury’s party had been saved by mooring to a sloping bank. They embarked when this bank appeared to be moving into the river. Aftershocks made the trees on both sides shake violently and the banks in several places fell, carrying trees with them. “The terrible sound of the shock and the screaming of wild fowl produced the idea that all nature was in a state of dissolution.”
Between Cairo and the mouths of the White and Arkansas rivers, the ground rose and fell in great waves, making new lakes, leaving swamps and river beds dry. One of the largest of these earthquake-formed lakes is Reelfoot in Tennessee, which is sixty to seventy miles long and three to twenty miles wide. Here forest trees had fish swimming through their branches and tortoises crawling through cane brakes. The water is clear as a mountain stream in contrast to the yellow Mississippi water. . . .
While there is reason to anticipate a recurrence, which could cause serious damage to such places as Cairo and Memphis and minor damage to St. Louis, it is well to remember that no place on earth is earthquake proof. — Jeanne G. Hawkins
Excerpted from “The day the Mississippi ran backwards,” published in the November 1963 edition ofFOCUS/Midwest.