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East Coast Earthquake

August 1884


Felt Over a Large Region – A Vibratory Motion from Washington to Maine 

Last Sunday afternoon there was an earthquake shock in this country, which was felt as far south as Washington and as far north a Maine, and in the intervening territory.  In Baltimore the sensation was as a wavy tremor.  It was not near as pronounced as elsewhere, but was sufficient, in a number of cases, to arouse people form their afternoon naps, crack plaster, slam doors and toss furniture about.  From other parts of Maryland there are reports of similar character.  No one was hurt but the shock occasioned considerable excitement.

New York and vicinity were shocked at the same time by an earthquake of much greater severity.  Its duration was about ten seconds.  The telegraph manager at Coney Island promptly asked for particulars of the “explosion,” supposing that some oil refinery, powder mill or dynamite factory had blown up.  A few minutes later, however, the fact became known there that the whole island had been thoroughly shaken by the vibrations, and that the guests and visitors were very greatly alarmed, the fright in some cases amounting to panic.  As a rule people remained in front of their houses for many minutes, apparently trying to gat at some solution of the fears and watching the faces and manner of others.  Women and children as they regained some degree of confidence returned to their houses.  Men assembled in groups in the streets discussing the occurrence which had so startled them.  The faces of men and women, however, wore a troubled expression and bespoke a dread that perhaps the danger was not yet over.  The effect of the jar was much more perceptible in houses of light structure, in many instances it being reported that a clearly defined movement was felt, and the dishes in pantries were shaken form the shelves.  In Central Park the shock was more severe, it is said, than in the surrounding region.  There were large crowds in the mall, who were at once thrown into a state of violent excitement by the shaking and strong rumbling in the ground, which was distinctly heard.  The animals in the menagerie were evidently frightened by the shock, and many of them were seen to tremble as if in fear, while they remained perfectly still for some time after it occurred.

The policemen on the Brooklyn bridge report that the shock was distinctly felt there, and the great towers at either end oscillated visibly, while the bridge itself rocked as if struck by a hurricane.  The shock was felt generally along the river fronts, and the piers were shaken as if by a heavily loaded truck passing over them.  At the iron steamboat pier, which is built of solid masonry, the motion was so violent that the ticket-takers rushed from their offices to ascertain the cause of the commotion.

The late afternoon boats brought back crowds from Coney Island, where it was said that the shock was much more violent that in the city.  The piazzas and dining-rooms at the Manhattan and Brighton Beach were well filled when a rumbling noise was hear, followed by a rocking of the ground, which made window panes rattle and shock dishes and wine glasses from the tables.  There was a general rush for the open air, and great excitement prevailed.  There was a general rush toward the main entrance, the people being under the impression that the structure was giving way.

In Brooklyn the earthquake was felt very generally throughout the city.  Along the river front and in the eastern district the chock appears to have been heavier and of longer duration.  Everywhere people ran from their houses in terror.  People in Greenpoint started on a run for the immense oil works which are located on the shore of Newton creek, thinking that an explosion had occurred there, while all the fire companies harnessed their horses in readiness to respond to an alarm of fire, which they thought would soon follow.

The sensation experienced on board the receiving ship Vermont, lying in the Brooklyn navy-yard, was similar to that felt when a broadside is discharged from a ship at some distance.  According to the story of one of the sailors, there was a distinctly perceptible jar felt, and it was noticed by all on board.  Persons traveling in street cars felt the vibration, and in many instances the wheels of the car seemed to leave the track, producing the same effect as when they pass over a loose switch.

The bell of a Presbyterian church in Greenpoint swayed back and forth and rang several times loud enough to be heard by all the people living in the neighborhood.  Among other evidences of the violence of the agitation in Brooklyn may be mentioned the stopping of clocks, the throwing down of a high pile of bricks, the swinging of lamps and pictures and the like.  Many of the Sunday-schools were in session at the time, and the teachers had in some instances great difficulty in allaying the fears of the scholars.

In Philadelphia the shock was very perceptible and the undulation apparently extended from northeast to southwest, increasing in intensity with each succeeding second and subsiding gradually.  The strongest buildings in the city were shaken, rickety chimneys toppled over on the roofs and bricks tumbled down upon the pavements in all parts of the city.  Plaster fell from ceilings of houses, chinaware rattled in the closets , door-bells began ringing, glasses clinked in a lively tune upon sideboards and clocks were set to running down.  In some instances people were prostrated upon the floors of their dwellings.  Nervous people were frightened to such an extent that many thought the destruction of the world was at hand.  Everywhere the populace became excited.

Every house in the city was agitated more or less, their occupants running breathlessly into the street, thinking that a terrible explosion had taken place.  A few moments later three-fourths of the entire population was in the street.  Gradually the impression that an earthquake had occurred grew upon the citizens, and each inquired of his neighbor if he had felt the shocks.  Many timid people were so alarmed that they hesitated to re-enter their houses, and did not so until they were assured by stronger-minded neighbors that a repetition of the remarkable event was unlikely.

The shipping was likewise affected by the shock.  The large ships loading petroleum in the Schuylkill river snapped their hawsers and were only prevented from going ashore by the united effort of their crews thrown out of their bunks.  Huge waves, backed up by the rising tide, overflowed many of the wharves, and considerable property was flooded.  In several instances where persons were watching the river from the docks they found themselves suddenly overtaken by huge waves and were thoroughly soaked with water.  Deeply laden steamers laying in the Delaware trembled without apparent injury during the existence of the shock.

The shock in Camden, N. J., lasted about ten seconds and created considerable alarm.  Every large building in the city was rocked, and bells were rung in every section.  At Berkley and Third streets the residents of the houses thought they were falling, and rushed into the streets screaming for their lives.

At Allentown, Pa., there was a general rocking of houses, and in some instances the motion was so violent as to throw persons sleeping upon lounges to the floor.  A party of gentlemen who were playing poker in a club-room rushed into the street hatless and coatless, under the impression that an attempt had been made to wreck the building.

Reports from other points in Pennsylvania are of the same general character.

A shock of about the same violence was felt at Boston at about the same moment (nine minutes after 2 p. m.)  In Newton, Watertown and Waltham three shocks were noticed, the first of which rattled dishes and swayed window curtains.  This was followed by a heavier shock thirty seconds later, and this by a third one lighter that either of the others.  The whole movement of the earthquake lasted perhaps a minute.

At Jersey City, Bordentown, Princeton and other points in New Jersey the earthquake was distinctly felt.  At Atlantic City water pitchers were overturned in the hotels, and in several instances furniture was thrown down and globes shaken form chandeliers.  Dishes were rattled on tables, and much consternation was occasioned in a few of the hotels where the guests were assembled at their meals.

In Connecticut and Delaware the shock was also felt.  In Washington City there were very slight vibrations of the earth, lasting about 16 seconds.

The earthquake seems to have been most sensibly felt on Long Island and in Connecticut.  Probably Hartford, Conn., was the most shaken of any point heard from.  At twenty-one minutes to three o’clock p. m., three long and convulsive shocks were felt throughout the city and vicinity, and particularly felt in houses occupying high ground.  Many people were thrown down and in some cases badly bruised.  At the second shock bells were rung, houses rocked like cradles and crockery and glassware fell with a resounding crash.  For some time the greatest confusion reigned in the lower wards of the city.  One man was thrown from his wagon when the second shock was felt, his horses running away madly, and barely missing trampling him underfoot in their flight.

At the county jail which is crowded with prisoners, the greatest terror prevailed, and for some time it was feared that the panic stricken men would try to burst the doors to effect their escape.  After the first convulsion their dismal howlings and screams to be let out were heard within three blocks of the building.  A dissipated man by the name of Doyle, who had been incarcerated temporarily to await his trial became perfectly crazy when the first shock came, and raved like a maniac.  When he found he could not escape he retreated to a corner of the room and shivering with terror hid himself beneath the coverings of his bed.  After a while his moans ceased, and when they found him he was dead from fright.  At the State prison, at Weathersfield, the same confusion prevailed, and the available force of prison officials were mustered to prevent an outbreak.  It was some time before order could be restored. 


This and Other Earthquakes and Their Causes.

Baltimore Sun Editorial, 11th.

Baltimore and points along the Atlantic coast as far north as Portland, Maine, experienced yesterday, between 2 and 3 p. m., several shocks of a mild earthquake, which lasted according to various estimates, from two to ten seconds.  In this city the shock was felt about 2:30 p. m., the movement approximating a north and south direction, and continuing several seconds.  Window-sashes rattled and a swaying motion was felt which attracted attention.  Persons who happened to be standing at the time the earth was quaking declare that they were compelled to take hold of something to maintain their equilibrium.  At a number of places the quaking was very distinctly felt.  Since according to scientific authority, “a slight earthquake central in a nonvolcanic [sic] region is an uncompleted effort to establish a volcano,” we may conclude that such an effort was made yesterday.  Though out of the region of violent scismic [sic] disturbances, the United Stated has hot always been exempt.  As late as 1871 Lone Pine and other settlements in the mining regions of Nevada were destroyed by an earthquake, and in the following year some damage was done to public buildings in San Francisco.  In 1870 a very considerable shock was observed in the Eastern and Middle States, the velocity of the wave of shock being about 14,000 feet per second.  The most severe one recorded in these States, however, was that of Nov. 18, 1755, which “began in Massachusetts with a roaring noise like thunder,” and ended by tumbling down walls and chimneys in Boston and elsewhere.  New springs were opened and fish were killed and floated on the surface of the sea.  Another famous earthquake is that of New Madrid, Missouri in 1811, when during several months the earthquakes repeatedly, rising and sinking in great undulations.  The surface of the ground was broken and great fissures a half mile long, from which mud and water were often thrown as high as the tops of trees.   The cause of the earthquakes is traced by scismologists [sic] to the secular cooling of the earth and the consequent crushing in from time to time of its shell toward the contracted interior globe.  The crushing takes place by leaps, the shell following down after the shrinking nucleus. 

The Landmark, Statesville, NC 15 Aug 1884

Transcribed by Jenni Lanham.  Thank you, Jenni!


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