New Madrid Earthquake Eyewitness 2

This description of New Madrid Earthquake was submitted by Brenda Jo Barrett:

I recently received the following from Charlie Daniels (Commisioner of State Lands, State of Arkansas) in the publication _Land Lines_ (Vol.X, No.1):

“On December 15, 1811, John Bradbury, a Scottish naturalist, was headed down the Mississippi River with a party of boatmen. They were tied up for the night just upstream from the Chicksaw Bluffs (the future Memphis) and Bradbury was fast asleep when “a most tremendous noise” panicked the group. “All nature seemed running into chaos,” he later wrote, “as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks tumbled into the water.” Bradbury recoreded twenty-seven shocks.

“Called the New Madrid Earthquake, largely because New Madrid (Missouri) was the closest settlement, the quake acturally began along the Saint Francis River in Arkansas some sixty-five miles southwest of New Madrid. Bradbury was closer to the epicenter than the residents of the town of New Madrid who were awakened by shaking houses and falling chimneys.

“After the first December rumbling, jolts continued. One Louisville observer recorded 1,874 separate quakes between December and March. During this time the epicenter moved closer to New Madrid, and on February 7 the residents deserted what once had bid fair to become the metropolis of the middle Mississippi River. The houses had fallen, and possibly even the land on which the town stood had sunk by March.

“Because so few persons were in the area of greatest damage and most of those who were there were illiterate, only a few firsthand account provide detailed information. Stories and legends grew apace, however, for the earthquake was felt all over North America, and reinforced the evangelical religious notion that the end of the world was at hand. Henry Schoolcraft, who took to poetry to record the quake wrote: “the rivers they boiled like a pot over coals, And mortals fell prostrate, and prayed for their souls.”

“Actually, the 1811-1812 earthquake was merely a continuation in a series which included rumblings in 1699, 1776, 1779, 1792, 1795, and 1804. These predecessor quakes were quite possibly even stronger; and some of the changes later credited to the New Madrid Quake probably came earlier. In time, the quake was credited with causing the Mississippi River to flow backward, with creating the “Sunk Lands” in the Saint Francis River Valley, in raising Crowley’s Ridge, and creating Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee.

“If another quake of the magnitude of the New Madrid Quake of 1811 should hit the region, it would be the worst natural disaster in American history. Especially vulnerable are buildings of brick and concrete. Almost all of downtown Memphis would fall. The highways and interstate systems would be shattered and bridges destroyed. Massive gas line ruptures would threaten life and property. If the Mississippi River were already near flood stage, the destruction of levees could result in the flooding of perhaps a quarter of the state (of Arkansas). Overall the loss of life could run into the hundreds of thousands.

“Despite its prominence as one of the great recorded natural events in American history, the New Madrid Earthquake had very little impact on the history of the region. Although minor tremors were felt off and on, and some timid folks, especially in the 1890’s decided to move elsewhere, the earthquake remained irrelevant to life until Iben Browning, a business consultant with some scientific pretensions, announced that another quake was due on December 3, 1990.

“Despite numerous scientific attacks on Browning’s methodology, the public became truly alarmed. Local communities took disaster relief seriously and sales of earthquake policies soared. Many residents stockpiled water, flashlight batteries, plastic bags, and toilet paper. Timid folk even left the state (of Arkansas). Days prior to the supposed event, every motel room near New Madrid was taken up by news persons ready to cover the projected disaster.

“December 3, 1990, passed with nary a tremor and the quake became the Great Non-Event of 1990. Nevertheless, the publicity did have a positive effect as few area residents could claim to be unaware of eastern Arkansas’ natural heritage.

“(Reprinted by permission, Michael Bruce Dougan, _Arkansas Odyssey: The Saga of Arkansas from Prehistoric Times to Present_ (c) 1994 Rose Publishing Company, Inc., Little Rock, Arkansas.”

On a personal note, my mother works for the State Health Department, and at the time of the December, 1990, prediction the State of Arkansas (government) took the prediction seriously enough to put the State Health Department on disaster alert, and everybody who had pickup trucks (including my mom) had assignments of what they would carry into the disaster area and which route they would follow–several routes had been mapped out, in case some were blocked off by the quake. As I remember, my mother’s assignment was to carry blankets, bandaging, and sulfa drugs.