Skip to content

Cincinnati house marks 1811 quakes it withstood

Cincinnati house marks 1811 quakes it withstood
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI (AP) — In the wee hours of Dec. 16, 1811, an earthquake jolted many of Cincinnati’s 2,500 residents from their slumber.
In the words of a Cin-cinnati newspaper called Liberty Hall: “It shook the houses, rocked the furniture, opened several partition doors that were fastened with falling latches and threw down bricks from the tops of some chimneys.”
This was the first in the greatest series of earthquakes in United States history. The other two largest earthquakes occurred on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7 of 1812. Many aftershocks also caused damage.
Cincinnati was fortunate to be far enough from the earthquake’s epicenter in New Madrid, Mo., that the newly-established frontier town suffered no casualties or major damage.
But within the New Madrid seismic zone of southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas and parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, the earthquakes caused an undetermined number of deaths and enormous damage. They uprooted trees, caused landslides and floods and sank boats on the Mississippi River.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of these earthquakes, the Betts House in Cincinnati’s west end — one of the few buildings in the region that existed when those earthquakes struck — is hosting an exhibit called “The Big Shake — How the 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes Rocked the Ohio River Valley.”
The exhibit opened to the public on Saturday.
It displays newspaper articles and letters from that period to tell the story of these earthquakes in the words of people who witnessed them.
There is plenty of material on hand to explain the nature and impact of earthquakes and it offers a history of earthquakes in the Ohio. A model seismograph, shake-table demonstrations and a topographical map of Cincinnati is being used to illustrate the science ideas behind earthquakes.
Greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky received a real-life demonstration on Aug. 23 when an earthquake centered in Virginia sent tremors through this region that shook buildings and created a scare. The Virginia quake had a magnitude of 5.8, much smaller than the three major ones in the New Madrid zone in 1811 and 1812. All three had magnitudes of at least 7.0.
The Betts House, the oldest brick house in Ohio still on its original site, survived the 1811 earthquake without any noticeable damage. But the brick summer kitchen building in back of it had extensive damage.
“We don’t know exactly what happened, but we think the chimney probably collapsed into the structure,” Julie Carpenter, Betts House executive director, said.
A new summer kitchen was built the next year and was attached to the house.
“People who lived on hilltops in Cincinnati slept through the earthquakes because their houses were on bedrock,” Carpenter said.
Amateur scientists of the day advanced all kinds of theories about the cause of the earthquakes. One even attributed them to the eruption of a volcano in North Carolina. Some religious people viewed the earthquakes as ominous signs of the Apocalypse.
George Heinrich Crist, who lived near the present location of Louisville, Ky., wrote in a Jan. 23, 1812, letter about the death of his daughter in one of the earthquakes.
“We lost our Amandy Jane in this one — a log fell on her,” he wrote. “A lot of people thinks the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end.”
Cincinnati’s two newspapers, Liberty Hall and the Western Spy, accused each other of publishing inaccurate news accounts of the earthquakes.
No one knows how many people were killed in the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes. Because the New Madrid zone was sparsely populated frontier territory with few newspapers, some deaths were never reported, Carpenter said.
If the same series of earthquakes occurred today in the New Madrid zone, they would kill 3,500 people, injure 86,000 and damage more than 700,000 buildings, according to the U.S. Geological Society. About 2 million people would require temporary shelter and 2.6 million households would be without electrical power. Economic losses would total $200 billion to $300 billion.
Cincinnati, being just outside the New Madrid seismic zone, would suffer some building damage in a recurrence of the 1811-12 quakes, said J. Barry Maynard, a University of Cincinnati geology professor who is helping the Betts House with its earthquake.
“We would see a fair amount of damage to houses and other buildings that aren’t built very well,” he said. “A lot of chimneys would fall.”
The greatest potential for injuries would come from falling bricks and stone cornices and trim and other unreinforced masonry, Maynard said.
“The tall buildings downtown should be fine,” he said. “Cracks could appear in old brick buildings. But wood-frame structures should be OK.”
Published in The Messenger 9.26.11

Leave a Comment