Illustration by Phong Nguyen
The thunder and shudder came a few days too early to be mistaken for a rooftop landing of Santa and his sleigh. The Chesterfield County-centered earthquake of Dec. 22, 1875, disturbed residents throughout Central Virginia. This "quivering sensation," as a western Richmond resident described it in The Dispatch newspaper the next day, rattled windows, caused frame houses to sway like ships in a heavy sea and had many Richmonders bolting bleary-eyed from their beds into an unseasonably warm night wearing nightshirts, sleeping gowns and little else.
At about 11:45 p.m. came the first of three rough rumbles of activity, with the second accompanied by bursts of light in the sky (not jagged bolts) and "a concussion of the air and a smothered sound — in short, an earthquake driving tandem with a sympathetic airquake."
A few days later, an editorial wag from the Baltimore Gazette teased Richmond for its public reactions. "Richmond is inured to battle, siege, pestilence, and to sudden Court of Appeals adjournments; to being burnt down and blown up; it can stand a moderate, well-behaved earthquake, but when it comes to ‘concussions of air' … men begin to inquire how long this sort of thing is to be patiently submitted to."
An unnamed observer told The Dispatch, "There were three shocks, the two last running into each other not sharp or sudden, but coming on rather slowly, swelling in force and then quickly flying out."
Few in Richmond and its environs had ever experienced such ground shaking. Confederate veterans spoke of similarities to an artillery barrage — though the quake was judged even more frightening. "Never before was there such universal consternation," The Dispatch stated, adding that not even events in Richmond during the Civil War caused as much disturbance.
Richmond Mayor Anthony Keiley wrote of his experience, which was it just another curious incident in the life of this New Jersey Roman Catholic and Confederate veteran who'd been a prisoner of war and later married Rebecca Davis, of a prominent Petersburg Jewish family. He described the movement as a "rapid, irregular, and agitated shake which a passionate man might give to a weak opponent." Keiley recalled the sound as at first resembling a rushing wind and then "of a chimney on fire."
The Dispatch office in the 1100 block of East Main Street trembled to its foundation. Panicky typesetters ran from the fourth floor to the street, breathless and uncertain if even they were safe. A couple of them got hurt in their hurry. One had the presence of mind to lower himself down using a dumbwaiter.
Bricks fell off chimneys, lamps overturned, plaster rained, shingles shook loose from roofs. A man living on 28th and Broad streets tried to get out but found that the shaking had locked his door. Some, suspecting violent intruders, stalked their houses with firearms. The James River sloshed from its banks. At Rockett's Dock, the snapping of mooring cables sent adrift two tugs, a schooner and a sloop.
Rumors began circulating of a massive explosion in the Chesterfield County coal mines. That seemed the more likely explanation since Richmonders hadn't felt such a shock in more than 20 years. Not apparently recalled in print was a shaking of Aug. 23, 1833, that killed two miners inside the Dover coal shafts in Chesterfield County. An "intelligent lady in this city but who resided in Nelson County at the time" told the Dispatch of her experience with an April 29, 1851, quake that centered in extreme southwestern Virginia or western North Carolina. That shock went on longer and was more severe. She recalled the jingle of crockery as it struck together. A decade later, a quake rocked in almost the same region, but the Civil War pushed the seismic activity off the front pages.
Richmond grandparents may have told stories of the massive New Madrid, Mo., temblor of 1811 that made church and emergency bells toll. Likewise vibrating Virginia overnight, it caused bleary-eyed citizens to dash into the street. Then, people were anxious about potential British provocation or a slave uprising.
No seismic monitoring existed in 1875, but from accounts of the damage, the pre-Yule earthquake is rated by scientists as a magnitude 4.5.
In comparison, the April 2011 quake off Fukushima, Japan, reached magnitude 7.1. Here, the Aug. 23, 2011, quake, with an epicenter at Mineral, in Louisa County, hit 5.8, with aftershocks ranging around 4.5.
After Virginia ceased quivering in 1875, the newspaper sought the advice of experts who varied in their ability to explain the phenomenon — with speculation centering on electrical activity, concurrent volcanoes releasing underground stress and even seasonal fluctuations of the barometric pressure. Physics professor Charles H. Winston of Richmond College (then on West Grace Street) explained that between January 1874 and March 1875 alone, there'd been 50 quakes of varying intensity in Virginia and nearby states. In the "things could've been worse" aspect, he mentioned the great Lisbon, Portugal, quake of Nov. 1, 1755, that within six minutes killed 60,000 people. Winston wrote, "Let us, with no fear of such an event for ourselves, calmly hope that its like may never be witnessed again on earth."