A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: A 14,000 mile per hour shaking, Cincinnati and the New Madrid earthquakes

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

On December 16, 1811, Cincinnati was shaking loose its “frontier town” reputation — literally.

The city had grown to over 2,000 residents and had about 360 buildings. Mostly gone were the log cabins, replaced with brick, wood frame, and even stone structures.

The burgeoning city now stretched to a northern boundary of Seventh Street. The only American Indians within a hundred miles were those who came down from places such as Wapakoneta to dance for spare change.

Across the river in Newport, the sleepy hamlet had grown to over 400 residents but maintained much of the “old growth” forest from which the city would be carved. It seemed nature had been tamed on both sides of the Ohio River. Nature thought otherwise.

The Cincinnati newspaper, Liberty Hall, of Wednesday, December 18, 1811, described the first earthquake, and its series of aftershocks, in detail.

Around 2:24 am on December 16, 1811, the residents on both sides of the river were awakened as the ground under their homes shook violently. For six or seven minutes, the earth rocked back and forth. In Newport and Cincinnati alike, pictures were knocked off walls, furniture upended, and several brick buildings in Cincinnati were cracked open and their chimneys knocked to the ground. Many residents of both places were fearful of returning to their homes lest they collapse on them. Many were not sure what had just happened.

We know today that is was the beginning of the series of earthquakes known as the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811 and 1812.

This first earthquake had a magnitude of 8.1 at its epicenter, ranking fifth in magnitude for all United States earthquakes.

Experts today say that the primary wave took only one minute and 18 seconds to travel from its epicenter 400 miles away, as the wave was moving at around 14,000 miles per hour. As fast as the quake moved, the violence of the shaking seems to have been limited to lower-lying areas like Newport and Cincinnati. Most citizens who made their homes in the surrounding hills of the two cities were not even awakened by the movement.

As bad as it may have seemed to residents here in the Ohio Valley, residents of New Madrid and Little Prairie (Caruthersville). Missouri were at the epicenter and found their towns utterly destroyed. The earth there was seen to move in waves.

The Mississippi River had islands disappear and new ones appear. Tremors were felt over 2 million square miles, as far away as Boston, Massachusetts and even in Quebec. Back in the two Missouri towns, around 1,000 people were mostly without shelter. While those at the epicenter found no humor in this destructive event, there was a moment of levity 400 miles away in Cincinnati.

Daniel Drake tells of some “amusement” at the Columbian Inn, a “fashionable hotel” in Cincinnati. Apparently, the cultured guests of the establishment initially got quite a laugh at each other’s expense as they looked at each other in their bedclothes, while standing in the cold muddy street. The humor did not last long as most of the populace was bewildered by what they just experienced. And there was still more to come.

Around 8 a.m. local time, a second quake hit Cincinnati and Newport that was nearly as severe as the first. Bewildered residents of the two cities now became terrified as the quakes continued. Many secondary tremors or aftershocks continued to occur. The poor residents of New Madrid and the rest of the Midwest would see two more major earthquakes, one on January 23, 1812, magnitude 7.8, and a larger one on February 7, 1812, with a magnitude of 8.0.

Incidentally, all three of these quakes rank in the top 15 of earthquakes occurring in United States history.

The February 7, 1812 quake would complete the devastation of New Madrid started in December. Whatever had managed to remain standing through the first two quakes was destroyed. It was the earthquake that created Reelfoot Lake. The Reelfoot Rift rose up, which gave the appearance of the Mississippi River running backward.

In the aftermath, the lake was created in present-day Fulton County, Kentucky. The devastation in the New Madrid area was so complete that it resulted in the first- ever request for federal disaster relief. Missouri Governor, William Clark, wrote the government requesting funds for the quake victims. Congress responded by allocating $50,000 for recovery and relief.

In Cincinnati and Newport, things weren’t nearly as dire. More chimneys collapsed, and existing cracks in buildings widened. A roaring noise preceded it according to some witnesses, as well as flashes of light that seemed to come from the earth. At least three aftershocks were reported before the end of the day. To the residents here, the earth seemed to never stop shaking.

Louisville engineer, Jared Brooks, recorded over 1,800 tremors of varying severity between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812. Aftershocks were being recorded as late as 1817.

Two more large earthquakes occurred in 1843 and 1895. Their magnitudes were much smaller, registering 6.3 and 6.8. Both these quakes appear to have been given much mention by Cincinnatians of the time.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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