Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The Richter Scale was widely accepted in 1935, which multiplies the intensity of a tremor ten-fold at each additional level. Before that, the magnitude of seismic disturbances was measured on the Rossi-Forel scale, a similar scale in that the first three levels of shock usually are not noticed, the next three levels cause fright and alarm and sometimes cause property damage, and the last three levels are deadly resulting in widespread destruction and loss of life. The highest level is total catastrophe.

Earthquakes come without warning. Although loss of life from an earthquake has never been recorded in Iowa, there have been plenty of tremors, with jolts measuring from 3 to 8 on the Rossi-Forel scale with slight to moderate property damage experienced.

The worst earthquake in recorded history to rock this continent happened to residents of New Madrid, Missouri at two o’clock on the morning of December 15, 1811 when they awakened to the groaning, creaking, and cracking of timbers amidst the crashing of falling chimneys. Trembling with fear, they grabbed a few belongings and fled their homes to escape the falling debris. Those that survived spent the night in the shivering cold as their town was leveled! For the next two months, the ground continued to shake like a pan of jelly! The “boot heel” region of Missouri was swampland that had not yet been drained. Many homeless residents waded through fifty miles of murky swamp alongside fleeing snakes and animals to reach higher ground where they felt safer. Only roving bands of Indians inhabited the Iowa region, thus there is an absence of record in this matter.

On January 4, 1843 the Ft. Madison Democrat said, “The shock of an earthquake was felt in Burlington Wednesday evening at five minutes before nine o’clock when several buildings were affected and loose articles were moved four inches from their place.”

In 1858, the Sioux City Eagle reported a shock with heavy rumbling on July 3, with movement west to east that shook pictures and crockery from their places, estimated as a fourth class shock. An earthquake that hit parts of the Middle West on April 24, 1867 was felt in many parts of Iowa. The Wapello Republican described it as “not violent, but easy swinging, giving one the sensation of the first effects of a dram of whiskey.” In Dubuque, cases were shook, gas burners vibrated, and people rushed out into the street, as walls seemed to be sinking.

On October 9, 1872 Sioux City residents experienced the sensation of slight dizziness as buildings vibrated. People on the 3rd floor of the First National Bank building swore that the building swayed a full two feet! High school teachers and students in Council Bluffs were struck with terror on November 15, 1877 when desks swayed to and fro and the entire building trembled. In Sioux City the same quake was measured with a force of 7. For 45 seconds buildings rocked, clocks stopped, windows and doors flew open. The trembling was accompanied by the sound of a railroad train. People stampeded into the street and schools were evacuated.

A deadly earthquake destroyed Charleston, South Carolina on August 31, 1886 and was felt as far north as Canada and as far west as Iowa. People in Burlington took to the streets when they felt the first shock. At Dubuque newspaper printers “ran for their lives” down the stairway and people fled the Opera House in terror.

Similar reports of shaking, rumbling and minor property damage were reported in Amana, Tipton, Cedar Rapids and Keokuk around eleven o’clock on the night of September 26, 1891. Strong seismic activity was felt on April 13, 1905 and three quakes were reported in 1909. These caused widespread alarm as violent shaking toppled chimneys and overturned objects. Desks and tables were moved and books fell to the floor in Iowa City on April 9, 1917. Similar reports came from Burlington, Bellevue, Cedar Rapids, Clinton, Davenport, Keokuk, Lineville, Mt. Vernon, Muscatine and Ottumwa. Every few years a low-magnitude shock is felt in some portion of Iowa.

The Keokuk Gate City claims that “mother earth’s fit” about 5:30 a.m. on October 31, 1895 was the strongest quake and the hardest shock since the New Madrid earthquake. Two distinct shocks lasted 25 seconds each with a short intermission. In Keokuk, chimneys toppled, several gallons of cream were churned into butter, and ashes were shaken out of furnaces. A terror stricken man reported that the quake shook the buttons off his trousers and his pants fell to the floor! Houses in Keosauqua were shaken so violently that dishes rattled on the shelves and some fell crashing to the floor.

Although a huge glacial drift that covers Iowa has served over the years as a giant shock absorber for seismic disturbances, they still occur on occasion and give rise to alarm. Schools now drill children regularly for earthquakes. Everyone should be prepared for one and know what safety precautions to use in times of such emergency.

 (from Palimpsest, Vol. 14, 1933)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick