Greater Greater Washington

DC earthquake history dates back to 1828

It was a close one, but we survived yesterday's earthquake. Some remember last year's quake, but did you know that their recorded history in DC goes back as far as John Quincy Adams in 1828?


Damage at Dunn Loring Metro. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

According to the US Geological Survey, no earthquake has been centered within the District, although Washington has felt ground vibrations from quakes in other regions of North America before. According to researchers at Virginia Tech, there were 160 earthquakes in Virginia from 1977 to 1994, only 16 percent of which could be felt.

Earthquakes in seismic regions such as the St. Lawrence River Valley, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and South Carolina have been felt before in the city. The earliest shock that may have affected some sections of Washington occurred on April 24, 1758. Its probable center was near Annapolis, Maryland, and it was felt into Pennsylvania.

A sequence of great earthquakes occurred in the Mississippi Embayment in 1811 and 1812. They were noticed by people over an area of 2 million square miles, including DC. According to old records, city residents were "badly frightened."

According to USGS, several eastern states and DC felt a March 1828 earthquake. Although no damage occurred, it was reported to be "violent" in DC and Baltimore. John Quincy Adams, the 6th President, penned the following account in his diary just after he felt the shock at the White House:

March 9, 1828. There was this evening the shock of an earthquake, the first which I ever distinctly noticed at the moment when it happened. I was writing in this book, when the table began to shake under my hand and the floor under my feet. The window shutters rattled as if shaken by the wind, and there was a momentary sensation as of the heaving of a ship on the waves. It continued about two minutes, then ceased. It was about eleven at night. I immediately left writing, and went to my bedchamber, where my wife was in bed, much alarmed.
People along the Atlantic Coast from DC to South Carolina felt a moderate shock in August 1861, probably centered in Virginia or North Carolina. Throughout most of the area, it was strong enough to awaken people, and to rattle doors and windows. Residents reported two shocks at five second intervals.

A quake in September 1884 near Columbus, Ohio, was distinctly felt by city workmen on top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, 500 feet above ground. Virginia's strongest quake to date, more popularly known as the Giles County (Virginia) earthquake, DC in May 1897. Near its epicenter near Pearisburg, the quake cracked old brick houses, threw bricks from chimney tops, and opened slight ground fissures.

A moderate April 1918 tremor in the Luray, Virginia, area reportedly broke windows in DC. Earth sounds could be heard over a very large area. The quake also broke windows and badly cracked plaster in the Shenandoah Valley.

A magnitude 7 earthquake in Canada's St. Lawrence River region shook a 2 million square mile area in February 1925. The shock waves were reportedly felt in DC. Another Canadian earthquake, a 6.2 tremor in November 1935, caused minor damage in New York and was felt as south as Washington.

Much of this information comes from the Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 2, Number 4, July-August 1971. Thanks to the H-DC list for the suggestions.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

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1811, actually - the New Madrid quakes reportedly cracked sidewalks in DC:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_New_Madrid_earthquake

by EdTheRed on Aug 24, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

...aaaand, I fail reading comprehension for the day - you've already got it covered. :-)

by EdTheRed on Aug 24, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

These articles are the cherry on the GGW pie. Delicious!

by Jasper on Aug 24, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

So, what you're saying is, yesterday's quake was a reenactment of that August 1861? I think that's taking this whole Civil War reenacting think a little too far.

by Brian M on Aug 24, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

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