WHEN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER RAN BACKWARD
The New Madrid Earthquakes
On the day when the state of Illinois is planning earthquake drills in schools across the state, it’s fitting that today’s post concerns the greatest earthquakes to ever shake the eastern United States – the New Madrid Earthquakes of the winter of 1811-1812. The earthquakes began in December and continued over the next few months, culminating in a massive shaking on February 7, 1812.
Over the course of that winter, a series of devastating quakes shook the nation from southeastern Missouri to Boston, New Orleans and Washington. Centered in the Mississippi Valley region, they were the strongest known seismic events in North America, east of the Rocky Mountains. They are known today as the New Madrid earthquakes due to their horrible effects on the small town of New Madrid, Missouri. They caused destruction like nothing never seen, before or since, and gave rise to incredible accounts of bizarre events.
Strange things began to happen in the Missouri Territory in 1811. Residents along the Mississippi River, near the settlement of New Madrid, began reporting all manner of weird happenings. First, it was the animals. Livestock began to act nervous and excited. Dogs began to bark and howl and even the most domesticated of animals turned vicious. Wild animals began to act tame. Deer wandered out of the woods and up to the doors of cabins. Flocks of ducks and geese landed near people. It was unlike anything the local residents had ever seen before. Soon, stories spread of eerie lights that were seen in the woods and in the hills. Strange, bluish white flashes and balls of light were seen floating in the trees and cresting the nearby ridges.
Perhaps strangest of all, especially to the more superstitious among the settlers, was the comet that had been seen in the sky for months. In the fall of 1811, it was at its brightest and in September of that year, this anomaly in the sky was joined by a solar eclipse that led some to believe that a dire event was coming soon. And they were right.
According to witness accounts, the New Madrid Earthquake caused the Mississippi River to run backward for a time.
The New Madrid earthquakes began at about 2:00 a.m. on the morning of December 16, 1811. The ground shook and heaved like waves on the ocean and the violent shock was accompanied by a loud sound like distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, witnesses said. One eyewitness later wrote that the thundering sound was “followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do - the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi formed a scene truly horrible.”
The violent trembling caused roofs to collapse, chimneys to fall, items in homes to be thrown about and numerous injuries. Rocks and dirt collapsed along the bluffs of the Mississippi and in some places, sand and water were forced to the surface in frightening eruptions. In the darkness before dawn, no one had any idea just how much damage was being done.
The New Madrid Earthquake caused an unbelievable amount of damage, but it would have been much worse if the region had not been so sparsely populated in 1812.
Between the initial earthquake and sunrise, a number of lighter shocks occurred. They were followed by another violent shaking just as the sun as coming up. The terror that had taken over the local populace, as well as the animals in the region, was now, if possible, doubled. People began to flee in every direction, perhaps believing that there was less danger if they could get away from the river. Many were injured, not only from the shock of the earthquakes, but in their haste in trying to escape.
Thousands of minor shocks and occasional stronger earthquakes were experienced during the following days and weeks. On January 23, 1812, at about 9:00 a.m., an earthquake comparable to the one in December took place. It was reportedly felt as far away as Boston. According to many accounts, the earth remained in continual agitation until February 4, when another strong quake occurred. Four events took place over the course of the next few days and then on February 7, around 4:00 a.m., the most violent concussion shook the region. One witness, Eliza Bryan wrote: “The awful darkness of the atmosphere, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all of the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination.”
It was as if the gates of hell had opened in the Mississippi River Valley.
The earthquake caused two waterfalls to form on the Mississippi River near New Madrid and, for a short while, the Mississippi River ran backward until the mighty force of the water caused the falls to collapse. At first, the river had seemed to recede from its banks, and its waters gathered up in the center, leaving many boats stranded on bare sand. The water then rose fifteen to twenty feet in the air and then expanded, causing it to rapidly rush toward the shore and overflow the river’s banks. The boats that had been left on the sand were torn from their moorings and driven more than one-quarter mile up a small creek. The river fell rapidly, as quickly as it had risen, and receded from the banks in such a torrent that it ripped away whole groves of cottonwood trees that had been growing along the shore. They were broken off with such precision that in some instances, people who had not witnessed the event, refused to believe they had not been cut. Thousands of fish were stranded on the banks, left behind by the surging water. The river drowned the inhabitants of a Native American village, devastated thousands of acres of forest and created Reelfoot Lake, about fifteen miles south of New Madrid.
The land shifted in such a way that an entire lake, Reelfoot Lake, was created in western Tennessee, about 15 miles south along the river from New Madrid.
During the hard shocks, the earth was torn to pieces. Hundreds of acres were covered over, in various depths, by the sand that came out of the fissures, great, yawning gaps that opened up all over the countryside. Some of them closed immediately after vomiting up sand and water, but others remained as open wounds in fields, pastures and forests.
Photographs taken many years after the earthquakes occurred still showed the tremendous damage that was done in the winter of 1811-1812.
After the February 7 earthquake, only weaker aftershocks took place, which still occur today.
No white settlers were reported killed during the earthquakes of 1811-1812, but many towns and cities experienced damage from the shaking ground. It is believed that the damage and death toll would have been much higher, perhaps at catastrophic levels, if the region had been more heavily populated at the time. In 1811, that portion of the Mississippi Valley was still sparsely inhabited frontier. If the area had been as populated as it is today, the New Madrid earthquakes would have been one of the worst disasters in American history.
Terrifyingly, there is still a chance of this happening. Minor tremors still occur along what is known as the New Madrid Fault Line on an almost daily basis and scientists believe that another major quake is inevitable. When it happens, the devastation could be the greatest ever seen in American history. Towns, cities, factories and oil refineries that have been built along the Mississippi River are woefully ill-prepared for the kind of earthquakes that occurred in 1812. Scientists say that it’s not a matter of IF such an earthquake will occur – it’s a matter of WHEN.
But when that might happen is anyone’s guess.