1857 Earthquake at Fort Tejon

I have this interesting collection of books I keep at our family vacation house. Here are just a few titles:

  • Train Wrecks – A Pictorial History of Accidents on the Main Line
  • Shipwrecks, Smugglers and Maritime Mysteries
  • Strange Deaths – More Than 375 Freakish Fatalities
  • California Disasters 1800-1900

Not that I am obsessed with disasters, it does make interesting reading for guests, especially the history of the events. I finally started reading California Disasters and came across a chapter on the 1857 Earthquake of Fort Tejon, one of the largest quakes in California history, a 7.9. Since it occurred close to home, I thought I would share this one with you all:

In early January, 1857, rancher John Barker and a neighbor were searching for some stray horses on the eastern shore of Tulare Lake, a large runoff basin for the many rivers and creeks of central California. Knowing their horses would not drink from this particular area of the lake, the two ranchers rode to a nearby waterhole to look for tracks. Years later, Barker recalled that memorable day:

I dismounted and led my horse by the bridle and walked to the edge of the water. Just as I reached it, the ground seemed to be violently swayed from east to west. The water splashed up to my knees; the trees whipped about, and limbs fell on and all around me. I was affected by a fearful nausea, my horse snorted and in terror struggled violently to get away from me, but I hung to him, having as great a fear as he had himself. The lake commenced to roar like the ocean in a storm, and, staggering and bewildered, I vaulted into the saddle and my terrified horse started, as eager as I was to get out of the vicinity. I found my friend, who had not dismounted, almost in a state of collapse. He eagerly inquired, while our horses were on the run and the lake was roaring behind us, “What is this?” I replied, “An earthquake! Put the steel on your horse and let us get out of this!” and we ran at the top of our speed for about five miles.

We returned the next day and found that the lake had run up on the land for about three miles. Fish were stranded in every direction and could have been gathered by the wagon-load. The air was alive with buzzards and vultures eager for the feast, but the earth had acquired its normal condition.

Barker’s recollection was validated by other intelligence, as reported in the January 13, 1857 San Francisco Herald:

In every portion of the state from which we have heard, up to the present, the earthquake of the 9th inst. was very seriously felt. It is by no means improbable that it extended to the extreme North. We clip the following additional particulars from our upcountry exchanges–

A gentleman from Mokelumne Hill informs the Sacramento American that it was severely felt in that region, and seemed to shake the hills for miles around. Reports were numerous of the caving in of several tunnels and burial of a number of men, but he could not obtain the particulars.

By all we could learn, says the Stockton Republican, the commotion was very visible, lasting some minute or two. We have heard two or three gentlemen describe the sensation as being so violent as to cause a kind of sea-sickness. In our establishment, the shock was quite apparent. The lamps, which are suspended from the ceiling, swung to and fro for the distance of more than a foot. One of them was thrown against the walls so violently that its jingling was heard in every part of the office.

Barker could hardly have exaggerated the extent of the tremor. Others reported the Kern River, to the south, flooding its banks as it actually reversed course and ran upstream. The quake, generally regarded as one of the most powerful in U.S. history, was felt throughout a large swath of California. Surface ruptures ran all along this tract. Artesian wells in the Santa Clara Valley suddenly went dry, while other wells appeared suddenly near San Fernando and Santa Barbara. Both the Los Angeles and the Mokelumne rivers, some 350 miles apart, flug water from their beds, leaving dry spots in some areas. The earthquake was felt as far north as San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento.

When an express rider from Fort Tejon arrived in Stockton on January 15, he brought additional news of the quake’s effects in the vicinity of his post. There was a light, barely perceptible shock about six o’clock that morning, with a heavier one following at 8:30. This second jolt lasted from three to five minutes, accompanied by a sound resembling the rumbling of a train of railroad cars. Nearly all the adobe buildings in the area were damaged to some extent as chimneys tumbled down, plaster cracked and walls fell. Several adobe buildings a the fort were under construction and were all but destroyed. Miraculously, no one at the post was injured, although there were some close calls. A man in the kitchen of on of the adobes rushed outside just as the walls caved in, and a Dr. Tenbrock was thrown to the ground violently.

At the government sawmill located some twenty miles distant, a mule team was thrown to the ground, oak trees were uprooted, and large branches fell to the ground. At Reed’s nearby ranch, a Mexican woman was killed by the caving-in of an adobe house. A Reverend Bateman, who rode through the surrounding country, reported that there were great fissures in the earth, indicating a very violent upheaval. He was informed by a vaquero that the mountain road to Los Angeles was nearly impassable due to rock slides. “From the accounts detailed by Mr. Cannady,” commented the Stockton Daily Argus, “we are confident that the shock was more severely felt at Fort Tejon, than at any other point in the state.”

Although it could not be measured in any way, most scientists of today agree that the quake was very large based on eyewitness accounts. It is generally agreed also that the quake was perhaps as large, or larger, than the San Francisco quake of 1906. It was only due to the sparse population, and lack of high population densities throughout California, that much greater damage and loss of life did not occur.

After reading this, it made me think of what would happen if this earthquake occurred today.  If the power goes out at my house for a few hours, it’s annoying, but I cannot imagine what devastation will result after an earthquake like this today … no power, no air conditioning/heating, no refrigerator, no house, no shelter … you get the picture.

Californians of today remain equally vulnerable to earthquakes as they were during its earliest days of habitation.  With the exception of 1906, no earthquakes equal to those felt in 1812, 1857, and 1872 have re-occurred.  California was fortunate in that the population was sparse in those early days and the construction less extensive.  If any of those earthquakes are re-created in the future, property losses will probably be in the billions, and the human toll will be unimaginable.

Some of us had a taste of this during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a 6.7 with high ground acceleration.  I remember half of the water in the pool jumped out, anything on the walls in the house fell off, and many cracks appeared on the property.  Our house was lucky, others in the neighborhood had foundations that were severely compromised.  Others in the valley were completely destroyed or ready to fall.  I remember it was hard to find a gas station that was open.  To this day I don’t let the tank go below 1/2 so I can drive for a few days in case of an emergency.  I remember during re-construction of the 5/14 interchange bridges having to drive in heavy traffic on the two lane “old road” for over a year.  And during all of this I remember the constant aftershocks for months on end … kept many of us on edge!

Remember, be prepared for the next “big one”.  Have your emergency survival kits ready.  We even have one for our dog!  Solar chargers are good to have and led camping lanterns too.  And establish an out of state point of contact for all family members in emergencies.  As government GIS Analysts and Managers, we are involved with emergency preparedness and EOC operations and training at work.  Let’s not forget to be prepared at home too.  -mike

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