Can you stand to see one more thing about earthquakes this week?
“Oh, such reports as have come to [us] to day from San Francisco! If all had gone as we intended I would have been caught [there] but I was sick and didn’t start [on time] and now I have everything to be thankful for.”
So Clara “Carrie” Woodroffe Pryor wrote to her mother, MaryAnn Woodroffe, in a letter dated April 19, 1906, the day after estimated 7.9 earthquake laid waste to the Golden Gate City.
Frank Woodroffe, one of her five brothers, was visiting from Mount Airy. He was to escort her to visit a doctor in San Jose. They’d planned to stop to visit friends on the way, friends who maintained a lodging house in San Francisco.
“You will see it all in the papers,” she continued. “Fire is sweeping the city and has destroyed several [neighborhoods]” Her friends were among the 3,000 dead, their lodging house destroyed.
Earthquakes have long been a source of fascination and primal fear for humans. Legends of the earth swallowing entire towns are the stuff of nightmares. While America has never lost a city, the New Madrid seismic event which began in December 1811 and continued until March 1812 changed the course of the mighty Mississippi.
It was a series of earthquakes, the strongest of which occurred on Feb. 7 and is thought to have been equivalent to an 8.4 magnitude quake based on the destruction and distances it was felt. That would make it the strongest such event on the North American continent known in modern times. The ground movement rang church bells in Boston, created new lakes and waterfalls in the Mississippi River, and caused it to flow backwards for a while.
North Carolina has had few significant seismic events. Earthquakes generally happen along fault lines, edges of the plates of the earth’s crust. These plates are in constant slow motion but occasionally get stuck against each other. When the force of the moving plate becomes too much, the plates shift loose of each other in sudden, occasionally violent ways causing waves of motion to travel through the earth and rock.
We are not on the edge of any plates and have no active faults so, in theory, there should be no earthquakes. And yet there have been as many as 80 events recorded since colonial times. Geologists are still working to figure that out.
Most tremors felt in here are between 2 and 3 on the Richter scale. A few, like last week’s 5.1 in Sparta and the 1916 Skyland quake near Asheville estimated to have been a 5.2, are stronger but rarely do more than pop some bricks out of chimneys, knock a few folks off their feet, and send cracks down masonry walls.
Because Surry County sits so near the Virginia border, folks in this region have felt the effects of tremors from that state as well as the Tar Heel State as was the case in March 1879 when a “heavy lumbering sound and the quivering of the earth” caused some excitement. The same again in February of 1885 when a quake centered near Wytheville, Virginia, woke those in the western part of the county up at 7 a.m.
On Sept. 25, 1886, one of the oldest copies of newspapers that still exists from Surry County, the Yadkin Valley News reported on the tremendous shaking of Charleston, South Carolina.
Not to be outdone, Rumbling Bald Mountain, mostly quiet since her six-month activity in 1874, had experienced an earthquake in the winter of 1886. Now, nine months later, a series of “very large fissures have appeared” on the side of the mountain. This caused concern that the mountain, which many thought might be hollow, “will certainly fall or sink in” on itself.
The Yadkin Valley News, Mount Airy News, and Elkin Times report a progression of North Carolina quakes through the years; Edgecombe County, October 1895; Person County, February 1896; several in May 1897 in Surry and surrounding counties.
“A violent shock of earthquake was felt here Monday afternoon about 2,” reported the Elkin Times in 1897. “The shock was preceded by a low rumbling noise like distant thunder. People were frightened somewhat and were fearful of a repetition of the memorable night of August 31, 1886 [the date of the Charleston quake]. Some think the shock was as heavy here Monday as it was on that night.” They go on to describe doors slamming, windows rattling, and items being shaken off shelves.
That would have been the Angels Rest quake in Giles County, Virginia, north of Wythe, that damaged several homes and derailed a freight train.
Tremors are reported in Surry in 1959, several in the ‘60s, and another in 2003. One a few years ago cracked concrete in the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History but didn’t do any real damage.
So it seems the shaking will continue on and off and we’ll continue to talk about the ones that came before all the while being glad they are no stronger than they are.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228