When the Mississippi Flowed Backward
Tectonic events such as a 5.8 earthquake in California and a volcano eruption in Washington – riveted our attention. But they failed to match the New Madrid Quakes of Dec. 1811-Feb. 1812 that caused the mighty Mississippi River briefly to flow backward.
Consider the eyewitness deposition of Firmin La Roche, a French fur trader of St. Louis.
The frontier west of the Mississippi had been sold by France to the United States just eight years before the quake. Missouri was a territory, not however a state.
LaRoche’s account – preserved in the Missouri Historical Review archives — was written in New Orleans Feb. 20, 1812, when after-shocks were nevertheless frequent. He had just completed a disastrous journey that started with three flat-boats:
Sound Like Thunder
“I was present at the earthquake which lately occurred above and below the mouth of the River Ohio, along both shores of the River Mississippi.
“I was taking three boats to New Orleans with some furs bought in St. Louis. On the evening of Dec. 15, we tied up eight miles north of New Madrid near the house of my cousin, John LeClerq.
“There were with me the Fr. Joseph of the Mission to the Osages, returning home to France — also Jaques Menier, Dominic Berges, Leon Sarpy, Henry Lamel, five other men and the Negro slave, Ben, who was killed at New Madrid.
“After we had supper, we went to sleep. I was awakened by a crash like thunder. The boat turned upon its side so that Lamel, who slept beside, was thrown on me. We fell against the side. It was very dark.
“We got away from the bank in about a half hour, and I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. I could see trees on the shore falling down. Great masses of earth tumbled into the river.
“Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log. In a moment, so great a wave come up the river that I never seen one like it at sea. It carried us back north, up-stream, for more than a mile. The water spread out upon the edges — covering three or four miles inland.
“It was a current going backward. Then this wave stopped, and slowly the river went right again.
“Everywhere there was noise like thunder. The ground was shaking the trees down. The air was thick with something like smoke. There was much lightning.
“We believed we must surely die. Fr. Joseph gave absolution. We did not see either of the other two boats. One of them we never saw again – nor do I know whether the men in them were drowned. We were all in great terror, expecting death.
“Trees were thrown down. People said great fractures in the soil – some very thorough – stretched 10 or 15 miles. “We were told there is a new lake in Tennessee (Reelfoot) and the water courses there have been changed. The River Yazoo has a new mouth.
“I was in great pain with a broken arm. Of those who were with me, there is not but Father Joseph. My personal loss I make to be $600 (about $12,000 by today’s money.)”
A Priest’s Recollection
In an appendage to La Rouche’s account, Father Joseph stated:
“I think there were two great shocks about half an hour apart and many small ones between and after. The water rose so that a tree on the bank — whose top must have been 30 feet above the river level — was covered all over.
“We saw two houses on fire on the left bank. When we came to New Madrid, there were homes also burning there.
“We tied up to the shore about dawn, and a hickory tree fell upon the boat – killing the negro, Ben, and breaking the left arm of the patron LaRouche.
“We made no effort to find out how many people had been killed, although it was told us that many were. We saw dead bodies of several. Afterwards we saw drowned persons floating in the river.
“The fur loads were thrown into the river by the people who crowded into the canal with us until we could take no more.”
Another eyewitness account (edited here for brevity) was deposed by Eliza Bryan, a New Madrid resident, four years after the event.
“On December 16, 1811, about 2 a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake. It was accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibration.
“This was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the air with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness.
“Truly horrible was the screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, of what to do – the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species – the cracking of trees falling — and the roaring of the Mississippi which was retrograde for a few minutes.
“Inhabitants fled in every direction, supposing that there was less danger at a distance than near the river.
“There were several, lighter shocks daily until the 23rd of January 1812. Then, one occurred as violent as the severest of the former ones.
“From this time until the 4th of February, the earth was in constant agitation – visibly waving as a gentle sea.
“On Feb. 7, about 4 a.m., a concussion took place so much more violent than those that had proceeded it, that it was denominated ‘the hard shock.’
“The awful darkness of the air saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise, formed a scene beyond imagination.
“At first, the Mississippi seemed to recede from its edges – its waters gathering up like a mountain. For a moment, many boats which were on their way to New Orleans were left on bare sand. The poor sailors made their escape from them.
“The river then rose 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly, and expanded. The edges overflowed with the retrograde current. Boats that had been left on sand now were torn from their moorings.
“The river falling as rapidly as it had risen, took with it whole groves of cottonwood trees. A great many fish were left on the edges.
“In all the hard shocks, the earth was horribly torn to pieces. Hundreds of acres were covered over by sand that issued from the fissures. In some places, there was a substance resembling coal.
“Lately it has been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot) was formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi in Indian country ( west Tennessee). It is upward of 100 miles in length, one to six miles wide, and depths of 10 to 50 feet.
“For eighteen months, we were constrained by the fear that our houses would fall from the continuing shocks and so lived in little, light camps. Some people fled, never to return, but most drifted back.”
Giant Earth Fault
The U.S. Geological Survey rates the three main quakes in the central Mississippi valley in the winter of 1811-12 as “the most powerful in U.S. history.”
There were no seismographs back then. However, the extent of land changes indicate three, closely related, quakes — magnitudes of 8 or more on the Richter seismograph extent of ten-fold points.
Most powerful quake of record is the Richter 8.4 for the Alaska quake of 1964.
USGS says, “Earthquakes in the central United States affect much larger areas than earthquakes of similar extent in the western U.S.
“The San Francisco, Calif., earthquake of 1906 (extent 7.8) was felt 350 miles away. The first New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, Mass., a thousand miles away.”
New Madrid in 1811 consisted of 400 log cabins. St. Louis and Memphis were small towns. “Should a category-8 quake occur there today, those cities would be mostly destroyed and thousands of people killed,” says U.S.G.S.
Last year, 470 assessable quakes were recorded in the Central Mississippi valley.
Warning by USGS: “The probability of a extent 6 to 7 earthquake occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone within the next 50 years is higher than 90 percent.”
Which is worst – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, mud slides, volcanoes or earth quakes?