Words, Not Pictures, Tell Philadelphia’s Earthquake History


Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
“View of the ruins caused by the great fire northeast corner of Sixth and Market st. which began on the night
of Weds. April 30, 1856 – From the northwest.”

In case you were wondering (and many in the wake of the recent earthquake that shook the East Coast are) PhillyHistory.org holds no images of earthquake damage. Sure, the city has a long history of shocks and tremors, but earthquakes around here have been little more than curious.

If it’s pictures of devastation you are after, you’ll have to change your search term from “earthquake” to “fire.” Now, there’s a search term with teeth.

Just a few weeks after the city installed a fire-alarm telegraph system in 1856, a fire broke out at the Jessup & Moore rag and paper warehouse. It spread to destroy 44 buildings near Sixth and Market Streets. The conflagration killed two firefighters and threatened Independence Hall, the tower of which can be seen through the smoke in this photograph by James E. McClees.

Philadelphia fires have an iconography all their own; earthquakes do not. But earthquakes passing through Philadelphia did produce a steady trail of tweet-length comments that predate the many online observations and comments of August 23, 2011.

“Clocks ran down and china shaken from shelves,” marks the first time Philadelphians noticed the earth shake on October 17th 1727. (We have Joseph Jackson to thank for his “Earthquake Shocks in Philadelphia” entry in Volume II of his Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, published in 1931).

A local printer recorded a “smart shock” after “a soughing noise was heard” December 1, 1737. A few Philadelphians even claimed the shock threw them to the ground. Aiming to capitalize on this new market of interested readers; Franklin attempted to explain the phenomenon in the subsequent issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Philadelphia’s only earthquake described as “ominous” struck on October 30, 1763, just as the ship carrying John Penn, grandson of William, landed at the Market Street Wharf. As it turned out, the “very loud roaring noise” accompanying a “trembling of the ground” was only that.

The shocks kept coming and so did the descriptors. On December 8, 1811 folks felt “a sensible undulation” and in the November 1840 earthquake was “accompanied by a great and unusual swell on the Delaware River.”

“Buildings shook perceptibly, sashes rattled and bells rang” from tremors on August 10, 1884. Two years later, on August 31, an earthquake produced “undulations in houses” and more bell ringing. An early morning earthquake on September 1, 1895 shook buildings, broke crockery, damaged walls of houses under construction, but not much survives that’s Twitterworthy.

Although Philadelphia seemed to be spared for much of the 20th century, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) “History of Earthquakes in Pennsylvania” tells of December 27, 1961, when residents in neighborhoods of the Northeast experienced rattling dishes and “loud rumbling sounds.” On December 10, 1968 toll booths on the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges in Philadelphia “trembled.”

The moral of this story, of course, is that some stories can be told with pictures; others can’t. We work with what history leaves us. And when we’re lucky, we encounter descriptive gems as “soughing.” For that vintage word alone (soughing, by the way, means murmuring or, in this case, moaning) we are grateful.

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