ST. LOUIS • It had been a year of trepidations.
A major flood on the Mississippi River covered the Illinois bottomland to
the bluffs. Summer brought malaria. In October, a comet filled the night
Itinerant preachers warned of doom, and people were in a listening mood.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1811, they were jolted awake by violent
shaking and guttural groans from the earth. Dogs howled. Families fled
unsteadily from rattling homes as the tremors continued for more than a
“I was roused from sleep by the clamor of windows, doors and furniture in
tremulous motion, with a distinct rumbling noise resembling a number of
carriages passing over pavement,” editor Joseph Charless wrote in his
Louisiana Gazette, St. Louis’ first newspaper. “The sky was obscured by a
thick, hazy fog.”
Charless thought it might have been a volcanic eruption to the west. Four
more shocks were felt that day, followed by many more over two months.
It was the start of the great New Madrid earthquakes, but the roughly
2,000 residents of St. Louis couldn’t have known that. New Madrid was a
village on the Mississippi, 70 miles below the Ohio River. Charless got
his news by mail couriers on horse.
In one edition of his weekly paper shortly after the first quake, Charless
explained his lack of updates: “No eastern or southern mail has arrived
He published tidbits confirming that two brick homes in Cape Girardeau
were destroyed, that a horseman drowned when ground sank near the Black
River and that people in Ohio and Vicksburg, Miss., felt the shakes.
In February, the Gazette learned that sand and coal had burst from the
ground in Arkansas territory. If Charless received early word from New
Madrid, he didn’t print it.
That village of roughly 50 people was wrecked. Most of their dwellings
were small cabins, and no one died. Few deaths were reported anywhere; no
one has a solid number.
Descriptions from terrified boatmen and letter-writing locals told of the
earth cracking open, giant cottonwoods splitting, flatland rolling in
ocean-like waves, sulfurous haze and flashes of light at night. The
Mississippi fell and rose in sudden thrashing tides. Islands disappeared.
In St. Louis, 150 miles north, a chimneys collapsed and walls cracked.
Prominent townsman Charles Gratiot grumbled later that the quakes had
scared away settlers.
In 1811, St. Louis barely covered today’s Gateway Arch grounds. A former
colonial outpost, it had been a United States possession for seven years.
Charless named his paper after the Louisiana, then Missouri, territories —
not his village.
Then the New Madrid fault rested, to arise on rare occasion with milder
Modern scientists estimate the 1811-12 events were stronger than the 1906
earthquake that wrecked San Francisco and killed more than 3,000.
Seismologists pick up weak tremors from the New Madrid fault every few
months. The threat of another big one is still down there.
In 1990, climatologist Iben Browning’s prediction of a major quake on Dec.
2-3 caused a publicity tizzy. Nothing else came of it.
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dozens of judges and three SCOTUS justices.