The steamboat New Orleans, first of its type to travel the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, set out from Pittsburgh on October 20, 1811, bound for New Orleans. Captain Nicholas Roosevelt had brought along his young wife, Lydia, their two year old daughter, and their Labrador, Tiger. Ten days after leaving Pittsburgh, they stopped in Lexington, where Lydia gave birth to a son. They stayed in Louisville, Kentucky long enough both for Lydia to recover and to wait until the river rose high enough to allow safe passage over the coral reef at the Falls of the Ohio. On the night of, December 15, the New Orleans was anchored near Owensboro, Kentucky, about 200 miles east of New Madrid (pronounced Mad’-rid,) Missouri. Tiger, insisted on staying in the cabin with them instead of sleeping on the deck as was usual.
That night was like most other nights on the Mississippi River. Crickets and other night insects could be heard, but aside than that, there was very little other activity. Flat-bottomed barges on their way downriver to New Orleans were moored as usual for the night, tied to trees on islands or along the banks of the Mississippi River. The whole area was quiet, as usual, but suddenly the earth began to shake with the greatest quake in American history, with an estimated Richter value of 8.1.
One observer recalled an enormous noise, like loud thunder, followed instantly by the deafening squawks of thousands of geese and other wild birds that, terrorized by the chaos, landed on large numbers on the boats moored along the river. Bright flashes of light illuminated the darkened sky: and some residents raced out of their homes, in fear of their houses collapsing, trees swayed and trembled, and the ground sank under them.
Fissures began to open in the ground, causing huge trees to break and fall, and swallowing dwellings and people alike. Enormous chunks of the riverbank tumbled into the Mississippi. In one area an entire graveyard slid into the river. The river churned and boiled with the violently shaking earth, while waves lashed the shore, sinking many of the boats moored there.
A young boy who watched the terrifying turmoil recalled that the land itself seemed to be moving in huge waves. The ninety square-mile Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee was created in a matter of minutes that night. The bottom of a swamp simply dropped away and water from a nearby creek rushed in to fill it. Elsewhere, earth, water, mud, rocks, and chunks of dirt blew straight up into the air with amazing force.
Although several towns near New Madrid were completely leveled by the earthquake, there were surprisingly few casualties, partly because so many people in the area lived in log cabins, which could withstand a lot of shaking.
The massive motion of the earth shook the Mississippi riverbed so violently that two new waterfalls were created where none had been before. For hundreds of miles the river flowed backward for a time. Presumably part of the riverbed had been lifted high enough to send the water running northward, instead of to the south.
Floating in the middle of the Ohio River, the Roosevelts were protected from the earthquake tremors shaking the land, but a couple of days later, when reentering the Mississippi River, they found thousands of trees floating on the river, then learned the town of New Madrid had disappeared.
They didn’t dare to stop and pick up the few survivors for fear of being overrun, and they were very low in supplies. More alarming was the fact that they had not seen a boat ascending the river in three days, just wrecked and abandoned boats. They tied up at one island, and the island sank during the night. Their dog, Tiger, alerted them to before disaster struck. On December 22, they encountered the British naturalist John Bradbury on a boat at the mouth of the St. Francis River, who told them the town of Big Prairie was gone.
They arrived safely at Natchez, Mississippi on December 30 and celebrated the first marriage aboard a steamboat on December 31st, when the boat’s engineer married Lydia’s maid. They arrived at New Orleans on January 10, 1812, safe and sound, after traveling 1,900 miles from Pittsburgh on the first steamboat to travel the western waters.
Nature wasn’t done testing the area, though. On Jan 23, 1812, the same area was hit by a 7.8 tremor, and that was followed on Feb 12, 1812 by a monster estimated to be 8.8. These were the biggest earthquakes ever felt in the United States; the shaking was felt as far away as New York City, Boston, Montreal, and Washington D.C. President James Madison and his wife Dolley were shaken awake in the White House where glass chandeliers danced and rattled. Church bells rang in Boston. Between December 16, 1811 through March of 1812 there were over 2,000 earthquakes in the central Midwest, and between 6,000-10,000 earthquakes in the Bootheel of Missouri where New Madrid was located near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Nobody knows what the total death toll of these quakes were, but it is considered light because of the relatively sparse population density.
Could it happen again? Seismologists say yes, although when is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, small quakes (measuring around 3 on the Richter scale) continue to rumble along the fault, but scientists are divided about what that means. Some are convinced that this means the “big one” is imminent, while others claim that the series of small tremors means that the pressure along the fault is being relieved. Like quakes everywhere, nobody knows.