Weird Things Happened During The New Madrid Earthquake Of 1811

By | February 7, 2022

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Drawing of the New Madrid Earthquake. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Starting on December 16, 1811, the region of New Madrid in the Louisiana Territory (what is today Missouri) was rocked with powerful seismic activity. The earthquakes, which ranked between 7.8 and 8.8 on the Richter scale, were some of the biggest quakes in U.S. history and the longest-lasting of all time. With all that shaking going on, a lot of weird stuff started happening.

The Whole Geography Changed

The earth literally opened up in numerous places across the New Madrid region, causing deep fissures up to five miles long, which made travel from one area to another really inconvenient for some time. People who were reported missing in the aftermath of the earthquakes were mostly assumed to have been swallowed up in these fissures. The quakes also caused sand boils, when sand and water from below the earth bubbles up to the surface, including the world's largest sand boil, spanning one and a half miles and covering an area of 136 acres. Folks living in its vicinity, west of the town of Hayti, Missouri, referred to it as "The Beach." Among all these geological oddities were also tiny balls of tar, ranging in size from "pellet" to "golf ball," made of petroleum that solidified under the pressure of the earth.

The shifting of the earth also created large depressions, and water from the Mississippi River that poured into these depressions created two brand-new lakes, Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake and Big Lake on the border between Arkansas and Missouri. The Mississippi River even changed course, flowing northward for several hours in what seismologists call a "fluvial tsunami." The flood of water going in the wrong direction knocked out riverbanks, uprooted trees, and even created new (albeit temporary) waterfalls along the Mississippi River.

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Cypress growth in Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee after New Madrid earthquake. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

In The Air, Too

Many witnesses reported hearing the low, deep rumbling of thunder during the earthquakes, and some even reported the sound of explosions in the distance and the sight of lightning shooting out of the ground instead of the sky. This is an uncommon phenomenon called "seismoluminescence" that is caused when quartz in the earth is compressed. The skies turned pitch black, and the air was so thick that a lantern couldn't penetrate it. Even during the day, a dense, foul-smelling fog hung in the air, most likely related to heated water (along with smelly sulfur) erupting from the ground like temporary geysers.