Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Great Earthquake of 1897


On May 31, 1897, Giles County, Virginia became the epicenter for a major seismic event that was felt throughout all of central Appalachia. Historically, the area near the West Virginia / Virginia border has been one of the most active seismic regions of the eastern U.S. This is because it's on the edge of the rock formations that were shoved (over hundreds of thousands of years) upward when the African Continent slammed into North America. This event is referred to as the Alleghenian Orogony. I'm not Bill Nye so you'll have to click the link to learn more. I will tell you that there is a very cool rock formation at the VA/WVA border along the Route 460 road cut, just past the big "Welcome to WVa" smokestack. You can see flat parallel rock to the west, layered in Limestone, Sandstone and Shale (with lots of mussel fossils visible) that was untouched by this event and folded/cracked/twisted rock to east where the impact of this slow upward thrust took place. Giles County is to the east as well so you can imagine what the the rock is like being on the edge of such a large happening. Add in large limestone deposits that have dissolved over eons from ground water, leaving huge caverns, and eventually something is going to fall. Geologist speculate that an earthquake thousands of year ago caused the side of Potts Mountain to collapse and dam up a mountain stream, creating Mountain Lake.

Getting back to '97, seismic measurement was determined by an event's effects on structures and humans since seismographs hadn't been invented yet. The U.S. used the "Modified Mercalli intensity Scale" (MMI) and measured intensity from the Roman Numeral I (weakest) to IX (kiss your ass goodbye). The Giles quake measured a MMI-VIII.

Here are some newspaper reports taken from Earthquake History of Virginia, 1774-1900 by M.G. Hopper and G.A. Bollinger (1970, pages 55-66):

MMI VIII
Giles County, Va. and Pearisburg, Va: Report that "Angels Rest", a high mountain near Pearisburg, was cracked. (RD 6/l/97)

From Roanoke, Va.: Telegram from Giles County that Mountain Lake still intact. "Advices from Giles County, however, still report much uneasiness there. The courthouse at Pearisburg was badly cracked by the earthquake shock, and numerous chimneys were thrown down or badly damaged. In other parts of the county, it is said, several brick houses were seriously damaged, and some shaken down completely. Along the railroad track tons of rock fell from the overhanging cliffs. In one instance derailing a freight train, and causing a delay to traffic for five hours or more. At Pearisburg bricks rolled from the chimneys to the roof of the courthouse in such numbers and to such an extent that Judge Jackson, who was holding Circuit Court when the shock occurred, left the building, along with the lawyers and others present. For a week or more before the shock people throughout Giles County were much disturbed by subterranean noises, and all day Monday detonations like the explosion of distant artillery were heard throughout the county. As to the crack in Angels Rest Mountain reports are so conflicting that it is hard to get at the truth. For several days after the shock last Monday the water in many of the springs and branches were muddy. An attorney of this city who was in Pearisburg on Monday bears out some of the above statements, and says that for nearly fifty miles from that place he saw hardly a sound chimney standing. In his opinion, if the buildings throughout Giles had been largely of brick, the damage would have been very great, and serious loss of life would have occurred."

From Pulaski, Va.: "From what can be learned, all reports about cracks in the earth in Giles, etc., are fictitious. Your correspondent saw yesterday a lawyer from there who said there were no holes in Angels Rest Mountain or elsewhere there, that any one had seen, but people are afraid to go in the mountain to investigate. There was a great scare, as the earthquake was very severe, there having been four separate shocks on May 31st between 2 and 5 o'clock p.m." (RD 6/4/97)

From McDonald's Mill (Roanoke County): "I have been reliably informed that in Giles County, near Pearisburg (the county seat) earthquake shocks have daily occurred for some time past, and the citizens along the base of a lofty part of a mountain called Angels Rest are considerably excited." (RD 6/3/97)
Dr. Goodride Wilson, writing of the Town of Pearisburg: "While court was in session on Monday, May 31, 1897, Pearisburg experienced a moderately severe earthquake. The judge summarily adjourned court, jumped over the railing and ran out of the courtroom along with the lawyers and spectators. A number of chimneys were toppled in the town and some brick walls were cracked. The shocks were felt throughout the county and in several other counties in Southwest Virginia."

Mr. J. H. Hardy, in a letter, reports that his father-in-law, Mr. Sam D. May, was an attorney trying a case in Pearisburg at the time of the earthquake: "He told me that the quake was really severe there. Some thought Mountain Lake had caved in. I think the water did go down some but if there was a crack in the bottom it evidently filled up gradually." (Hardy, 1969)

Earthquake "especially strong at Pearisburg, where the walls of old brick houses were cracked and bricks were thrown from chimneys which had been damaged. A few earth fissures and small landslides were reported from this area, but no serious damage.... At Narrows (Va.) large rocks rolled down the mountains. The sounds were compared by veterans to those made by seige guns in action.... Minor tremors continued from time to time until June 6." (MacCarthy, 1964)

"There were fissures in the ground and small landslides in places where they were easy to start. At the Narrows ( Va.) it was claimed that a motion like the ground swell of the ocean was observed." (Eppley, 1965, p. 25).

"Earthquake shocks nightly in Giles County since the 25th; large fissures have been made." (MWR)
Noises heard from May 3 to May 31 and after. Shock most severe near Pearisburg. No serious damage, but old brick houses badly shaken and many chimneys cracked and top bricks knocked off. Much noise. Many people "terror stricken." Surface "rolled like the groundswells of the ocean" and springs were muddied and one large landslide started at the Narrows. (Campbell, 1898)

Roanoke, Va.: Crockery rattled, windows shaken, doors opened and closed, furniture moved in many houses. Several chimneys knocked down; frame buildings "seen to sway back and forth." In the business district "many persons rushed into the streets, fearing that the buildings would fall.... Felt by everybody and frightened many people." (RD 6/l/97)

Terry Building was "noticed to sway perceptibly and doors standing open in the Masonic Temple and Commercial Bank building were swung back and forth." Pictures shaken from walls and bottles from shelves. -- "People rushed out of their houses expecting them to fall." Shock scared "a great many people nearly out of their wits." Several chimneys "shaken to the ground." Tops shaken off some chimneys and others "partly demolished." (RT 6/l/97)

MII VII
Bedford City, Va.: Earthquake "severest ever felt here, and caused considerable consternation . . . . Rocking vibration . . . accompanied by a dull detonation like that of heavy thunder and a report like that of a cannon." (RD 6/l/97) "Chimneys of the courthouse, bank, Windsor Hotel, and several private houses were shaken down. The walls of several dwellings were cracked, and people rushed terrified into the streets." (RD 6/l/97)


Pulaski, Va.: "Very severe earthquake shock.... Shook down chimneys greatly alarming the citizens who rushed from their houses and places of business." No other damage. (RD 6/l/97)

Radford, Va.: "No less than twenty chimneys shaken or split and in some instances... nearly leveled to the houses." Roofs of some houses "looked as if mortar and lime had been scattered all over them." Buildings rocked so much that no shocks were noticeable in the open ground. "The earth seemed to rise and fall in waves.... Heaviest earthquake ever known in this section." (RD 6/l/97)
"Heavy earthquake shocks.... A great deal of excitement was occasioned at the time, as chimneys were falling, houses rocking like cradles, and women and children screaming in terror about the streets." Preceded by "a heavy rumbling." (RT 6/l/97)

Houston, Va.: "Quite a severe earthquake shock" - Several chimneys partly demolished. (RD 6/l/97)

Bristol, Tenn. - Va.: "Shook the buildings so that the people ran into the streets." Several chimneys "thrown to the ground." (RD 6/l/97)

time - 13:15, duration - 30 seconds. (MWR)
Bluefield, W.Va.: "A heavy seismic disturbance, with buildings rocking and chimneys failing." (RD 6/l/97)

MMI VI-VII
Wytheville, Va.: Many people "were panic-stricken, running from their houses." Bricks were thrown from chimneys; in some cases "chimneys were cracked and thrown several inches out of plumb.... Terrifically loud" report accompanied the shock. One large tree "was precipitated down a steep cliff into the creek." (RD 6/l/97)

Knoxville, Tenn.: Felt throughout the city - "Several large buildings were badly shaken and two chimneys fell. " (RD 6/l/97)

"Startled the citizens nearly out of their wits." Little damage. (RT 6/l/97)

Several chimneys shaken down. (NYT 6/l/97)

MII VI
Christiansburg, Va.: A "rumbling noise" preceded the shock. Houses rocked, doors opened, bricks thrown from chimneys. People "rushed into the streets much excited." Severity of the earthquake "exceeded any in the recollection of the oldest inhabitant." (RD 6/l/97)

"It was a warm sunshiny day in early summer when, without warning, buildings along Main Street begun a rocking movement and the dry timbers in their frames popped and cracked and the air became full of dust. Many people ran out of the houses into the street, some whitefaced, and stared upward where the dust, shaken from the buildings was slowly settling toward the ground. The tremor lasted only a few minutes before the panic was over and normal business was resumed along the street. This earthquake was felt in several counties adjoining Montgomery, but little damage was reported beyond the cracking of plaster in a few homes." (NMI Centennial Edition, 12/31/1969)

Dublin, Va.: "Severe." Houses shaken, horses frightened, bricks thrown from chimneys. "Rumbling noise" preceded and followed the shock. (RD 6/l/97)

Lynchburg, Va.: Felt "very perceptible.... Many badly frightened, and rushed into the streets, and great excitement prevailed for awhile." (RD 6/l/97)

Bricks fell from chimneys and "furniture and crockery jostled." (MacCarthy, 1964)
Time - 13:58 (MWR)


Richmond, Va.: "The vibrations lasted for several seconds and were so violent that many people ran out of their homes, fearing their collapse." No material damage. Hotel guests "ran out of their rooms under the impression that a boiler had burst." Noise "Loud and startling." Pictures were shaken, shutters "rattled as if blown by a violent wind" and "furniture was moved in a number of instances." Many suddenly sick just before the shock was felt; symptoms "like nausea and swimming of the head." Convicts at the penitentiary tried to break out. "The most serious and alarming (earthquake) ever experienced here." (RD 6/l/97)
Windows, pictures, glassware rattled violently and unstable objects overthrown. Hundreds of people left their houses in alarm. (from Washington Post, June 1) (MacCarthy, 1964)
An earthquake shook "buildings and rattled windows, but no damage was done. The people in many buildings were badly frightened." (NYT 6/l/97)

Time - 13:59. "Violent vibrations and loud noises; two shocks, at 13:59 and 14:1l." (MWR)
Rocky Mount, Va.: "Severe" Felt by "the entire community." Accompanied by "rumbling sound, much like that made by the rapid moving of a wagon or wagons upon the streets." Many "rushed into the streets from their houses and offices." Loose bricks thrown from chimneys. (RD 6/l/97)

Salem, Va.: Just before the shock, "a peculiar noise... resembling the reverberation of thunder" was heard. Bricks shaken from chimneys, goods thrown from shelves of stores, no damage. "People rushed pale and frightened from their houses." (RD 6/l/97)

Houses "were trembling like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze." (RT 6/l/97)

Letter from Mr. J. H. Hardy who was a boy of 17 at the time of the earthquake: "Was seated on a stool at the kitchen table eating when all of a sudden everything began shaking including the stool I was seated on. My first thought was that there was a heavy explosion somewhere in the neighborhood. I didn't get excited -- but finished eating and went down to the street where everybody was talking about the earthquake." (Hardy, 1969)

Stuart, Va.: "A severe and prolonged earthquake shock". . . . Accompanied by a loud, rumbling noise. Windows rattled, houses shook, and furniture was overturned. (RD 6/l/97)

Tazewell, Va.: "Strong" shock. Bricks shaken from tops of some chimneys. People "rushed into the streets to ascertain the cause of the vibrations." Accompanied by "a perceptible roar." (RD 6/l/97)
Asheville, N.C.: Felt. (RD 6/l/97]

"An earthquake shock shook Asheville perceptibly. Hundreds of occupants of buildings ran into the streets. No damage." (NYT 6/l/97)

Time - 13:59. (MWR)
Durham, N.C.: "Distinct." Houses shaken and plastering knocked from the ceilings. (RD 6/l/97)
Lenoir, N.C.; Time - 13:58. "Loud roar, chimneys injured." (MWR)

Oxford N.C.: "Very perceptible." Bricks thrown from chimneys. No damage. (RD 6/l/97)

Raleigh, N.C.: Plastering knocked down. Doors closed. One public building cracked. (RD 6/l/97)

"Quite a severe shock of earthquake." No damage. (RT 6/l/97)

A few chimneys damaged. (MacCarthy, 1964)

"Two shocks, each lasting 30 seconds; chimneys thrown down." (MWR)

Salisburg, N.C.: "A distinct shock of an earthquake." Walls cracked, plaster fell, and glass rattled. No general damage. (RD 6/l/97)

Weldon, N.C.: Many "badly frightened and ran out of their houses." "Quite severe." Walls of several houses "seen to move, and others rocked like a cradle. . . . Crockery and other things rattled together, and many small things were thrown down."

Winston, N.C.: "The most severe earthquake of any experienced in this section since the memorable Charleston earthquake in 1886....
A general exodus from stores and residences to the streets, and consternation reigned supreme for a few minutes." Some nausea. Bricks shaken off chimneys at several houses. (RD 6/l/97)

Jonesboro, Tenn.: "The shock was quite severe." (RD 6/l/97)

The people ran out into the streets. (NYT 6/l/97)


Giles County and it surrounding region have grown leaps and bounds in population since 1897. Such a quake today would have devastating results.

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