I hate to tell you this, but America's midsection has a big tummy ache. It's probably not keeping you up nights, but maybe it should - because to put it in the vernacular of my youth, “We can't believe we ate the whole thing” - (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut1jukxCwPs ). The testimonials of our last intestinal uprising are striking. “The roar I thought would leave us deaf...It was the worst thing that I have ever witnessed.” It was an historic case of indigestion. And that was what you would expect, considering what we swallowed.
About a billion years ago the earth had cooled enough for surface rocks to be strong enough to support the first great mountain range. The worn down nubs of these ancient Himalayas (above, across the center of the landmass) still stretch across Quebec and Northern New York State, now called the Laurentide mountains and giving their name to this particular toddler continent. But in the formation of Laurentia the bedrock of igneous granite and quartz was broken and cracked, then buried under a few billion tons of sedimentary sandstone and limestone washed down from the Laurentide mountains.
For most of the next three quarters of a billion years, Laurentia slowly drifted, her west flank adding new terrains in more collisions, until she reached adulthood as the North American tectonic plate. And then, like a Mexican omelet that brings up last night's sweet and sour pork, about a million years ago a lump of ice brought back up that lump of broken rock in our belly.
It was the glacier melt that realigned North America's rivers from north to south. The Mississippi now carried the weight of the Rocky Mountains to America's abdomen, depositing billions of tons silt at low water right on top of the undigested meal. The piling weight caused the broken bedrock to occasionally shift. We know it shifted 2,500 years ago, again 1,800 years ago, and again 600 years ago. And then, one more time, 200 years ago. That last time, it happened to people who wrote the experience down
In 1777, on the outer bank of a great westward bend of the half mile wide river (above), 175 river miles south of St. Louis (and 70 air miles south of the mouth of the Ohio River) , the Spanish established a fort they named after their capital - New Madrid. One year later Azor Rees, a farmer from Pennsylvania arrived with his wife and 3 year old daughter Eliza. The Rees willing swore allegiance to the Charles III of Spain, and adopted Roman Catholicism. They were successful in the community, even after Azor died in 1796. Then in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, they became Americans again.
Seven years later, the town of New "MAD-rid" had 400 residents, including the now 31 year old Eliza Rees Bryan – married to a United States Army surgeon. Having a government job, Dr. Bryan received a regular paycheck, and Eliza's mother also operated a boarding house, making them a very important family in this small frontier town. So it was natural that Eliza, in a time and a place where an educated woman was still a rarity, would be asked by a visiting evangelist to record what she had experienced. This is what Eliza wrote.
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating...The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro....the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi - the current of which was retrogade for a few minutes....formed a scene truly horrible.” The town's graveyard even disappeared into the river.
Fifteen miles to the south, and closer to the epicenter, stood the 27 houses of the river town of Little Prairie. Here 16 year old Ben Chartier and his mother were standing in the cabin doorway overlooking their orchards though the crisp 40 degree air. Abruptly, "The ground burst wide open and peach and apple trees were knocked down and then blowed up.” The leading citizen of Little Prairie was George Roddell. As swamps next to his property “rose up and became dry land”, he watched his home and grain mill swallowed by the collapsing earth. Within fifteen minutes the residents were waist deep in the cold roiling Mississippi. Stumbling in the dark water, without lights, Roddell led his 100 neighbors in search of dry land. They did not find any until the village of Hayti, eight miles to the northwest.
As the riverbed below the New Madrid Bend rose up, the river was sent rushing backward, swamping 30 flatboats tied up for the night. Their crews were heard calling in terror as the darkness and the mad river swallowed them. On one of those boats that survived, Scotchman John Bradbury was awakened by “a most tremendous noise. All nature seemed running into chaos, as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks tumbled into the water.”
Below the Bend another earthen block was thrown up, creating a waterfall that continued for days. Eliza observed that small shocks continued , “...until about sunrise...(when) one still more violent than the first took place... The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country...In one person, a female, the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be recovered. In all four died in New Madrid.
In St. Louis, two hundred miles north of the epicenter, a reporter for the Louisiana Gazette noted he had been “roused from sleep by the clamor of windows, doors and furniture in tremulous motion, with a distant rumbling noise, resembling a number of carriages passing over pavement – in a few seconds the motion and subterranean thunder increased....The agitation...lasted about one and three fourth minutes....At forty seven minutes past two, another shock was felt...much less violent than the first...At thirty four minutes past three, a third shock...(lasted) about fifty seconds...About 8 o'clock, a fifth shock was felt; this was almost as violent as the first, accompanied with the usual noise, it lasted about half a minute...”.
In South Carolina wells went dry and people were awakened from their sleep. In Washington, D.C., chairs slid about wooden floors and chandeliers were sent vibrating. Church bells rang in Philadelphia and as far north as Boston. Two hundred thirty miles from the epicenter, at the falls of the Ohio River, in Louisville, Kentucky, Zachary Taylor recorded, “The sight was truly awful: houses cracking, chimneys falling, men, women and children running in all directions in their shirts for safety, and a friend of mine was so much alarmed as to jump off a window and was very much hurt.”
By current scientific figuring it was at least a seven on the Mercalli scale, and maybe an eight. If the later, that meant at least two aftershocks in the seven range, four above six and at least eight above five. But superimposed over this pattern, On January 13, 1812, in St Louis, the Governor of Louisiana Territory, sent an urgent request to Washington, arguing “provisions ought to be made by law for or cashiered to the said inhabitants relief, either out of the public fund or in some other way”. But “the Supreme Being of the Universe” as Governor Clark called him, was not yet finished with the residents of New Madrid.
On January 23, 1812, there was a second major quake measuring between a seven and an eight, this time centered even closer to New Madrid. Artist James Audubon, on a boat trip to paint the new country, wrote in his journal, “ I heard what I imagined to be the distant rumbling of a violent tornado…at that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move...The ground rose and fell in successive furrows like the ruffled waters of a lake.” Godfrey Lessieur saw the ground, “rolling in waves of a few feet in height... These swells burst, throwing up large volumes of water (and) sand...(Leaving) large, wide and long fissures...I have seen some four or five miles in length, four and one-half feet deep on an average about ten feet wide.” George Crist, a farmer in Kentucky, confided to his diary, “We lost our Amandy Jane in this one – a log fell on her...A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to an end.”
Then, as Eliza Rees Bryan noted, on the 7th of February, “..about 4 o'clock A.M., a concussion took place so much more violent...At first the Mississippi seemed to recede...leaving for the moment many boats, ...on bare sand...It then rising fifteen to twenty feet....the banks were overflowed with the retrogade current, rapid as a torrent - the boats....were now torn from their moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek...nearly a quarter of a mile. The river falling immediately...with such violence, that...whole groves of young cotton-wood trees...were broken off....A great many fish were left on the banks...The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats, and 'tis said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.” There was now not a house undamaged nor a chimney standing within 250 miles of New Madrid.
At the headwaters of the Tennessee River, in the village of Knoxville, “the river rose several feet, the trees on the shore shook...hundreds of old trees that had lain perhaps half a century at the bottom of the river, appeared...” Six hundred miles from the epicenter, in Charleston, South Carolina there was, “Another severe shock....Books and other articles were thrown from shelves, and chairs and other furniture standing against walls, made a rattling noise...”.
Back in New Madrid, membership in the Methodist Church went from 17 in 1811 to 165 in 1812. Eliza Rees Bryan noted, “The site of this town...(has) settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than a half a mile below the town...numerous large ponds or lakes....are elevated...fifteen to twenty feet....And lately it has been discovered that a lake was formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi (above)...upwards of one hundred miles in length, and from one to six miles in width,.” This came to be called Reelfoot Lake, and it is now a Tennessee Recreation Area
Responding with typical government efficiency, in 1815 congress voted to offer the December 1811 survivors of New Madrid, 640 free acres each, anywhere else in Missouri they wanted. Land speculators beat the government communications to the riverfront town, and bought up most of the claims for $40 to $60 each. Like earthquakes, mountains and continents, human greed is a repetitive story.
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