Giles County Earthquake
of May 31, 1897
Because the 1897 Giles County earthquake
preceded seismic networks, there were few direct measures of the
ground motion resulting from the earthquake. For this, and other
pre-network events, one determines intensities for the event and
infers from that a magnitude, or some other measure of size.
The earthquake intensity is a measure
of the effects of an earthquake at a particular place on humans
and (or) structures. The intensity at a point depends not only
upon the strength of the earthquake (magnitude) but also upon
the distance from the point of observation to the epicenter and
the local geology at that point. Note that a given event will
have only one magnitude, but many intensity values. Intensities
tend to decrease with distance from the epicenter, but local site
conditions or focusing effects can produce anomalies. Also, the
lower intensities depend upon human perception, which is subjective
and subject then to variability.
The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (MMI)
is the one used in North America. It is expressed by Roman numerals.
MMI = III is generally the threshold for a "felt" event
at that location. Architectural damage comes with MMI = VI.
MMI values of VII-IX are applied for increasing degrees of structural
The reports given below are taken from Earthquake
History of Virginia 1774 - 1900 by M. G. Hopper and G. A
Bollinger, 1971, pages 55-66, and are based primarily on newspaper
accounts. The reports are given here in the order of decreasing
intensities, and for each intensity value they are ordered alphabetically
within each state. Entries in parentheses refer to newspapers --
mostly in 1897.
A special note: chimneys in 1897 were not
as well constructed as they are now, so less horizontal shaking
would damage a chimney in 1897 more than it would today.
Clicking on the map
shows the outline of the MMI zones. MMI=VIII is the maximum intensity
for this event. The felt area estimated to be
280,000 square miles.
Giles County, Va. and Pearisburg, Va:
Report that "Angels Rest", a high mountain near Pearisburg,
was cracked. (RD 6/l/97)
From Roanoke, Va.: Telegram from Giles County
that Mountain Lake still intact. "Advices from Giles County,
however, still report much uneasiness there. The courthouse at
Pearisburg was badly cracked by the earthquake shock, and numerous
chimneys were thrown down or badly damaged. In other parts of
the county, it is said, several brick houses were seriously damaged,
and some shaken down completely. Along the railroad track tons
of rock fell from the overhanging cliffs. In one instance derailing
a freight train, and causing a delay to traffic for five hours
or more. At Pearisburg bricks rolled from the chimneys to the
roof of the courthouse in such numbers and to such an extent that
Judge Jackson, who was holding Circuit Court when the shock occurred,
left the building, along with the lawyers and others present.
For a week or more before the shock people throughout Giles County
were much disturbed by subterranean noises, and all day Monday
detonations like the explosion of distant artillery were heard
throughout the county. As to the crack in Angels Rest Mountain
reports are so conflicting that it is hard to get at the truth.
For several days after the shock last Monday the water in many
of the springs and branches were muddy. An attorney of this city
who was in Pearisburg on Monday bears out some of the above statements,
and says that for nearly fifty miles from that place he saw hardly
a sound chimney standing. In his opinion, if the buildings throughout
Giles had been largely of brick, the damage would have been very
great, and serious loss of life would have occurred."
From Pulaski, Va.: "From what can be
learned, all reports about cracks in the earth in Giles, etc.,
are fictitious. Your correspondent saw yesterday a lawyer from
there who said there were no holes in Angels Rest Mountain or
elsewhere there, that any one had seen, but people are afraid
to go in the mountain to investigate. There was a great scare,
as the earthquake was very severe, there having been four separate
shocks on May 31st between 2 and 5 o'clock p.m." (RD 6/4/97)
From McDonald's Mill: "I have been
reliably informed that in Giles County, near Pearisburg (the county
seat) earthquake shocks have daily occurred for some time past,
and the citizens along the base of a lofty part of a mountain
called Angels Rest are considerably excited." (RD 6/3/97)
Dr. Goodride Wilson, writing of the Town
of Pearisburg: "While court was in session on Monday, May
31, 1897, Pearisburg experienced a moderately severe earthquake.
The judge summarily adjourned court, jumped over the railing
and ran out of the courtroom along with the lawyers and spectators.
A number of chimneys were toppled in the town and some brick
walls were cracked. The shocks were felt throughout the county
and in several other counties in Southwest Virginia."
Mr. J. H. Hardy, in a letter, reports that
his father-in-law, Mr. Sam D. May, was an attorney trying a case
in Pearisburg at the time of the earthquake: "He told me
that the quake was really severe there. Some thought Mountain
Lake had caved in. I think the water did go down some but if
there was a crack in the bottom it evidently filled up gradually."
Earthquake "especially strong at Pearisburg,
where the walls of old brick houses were cracked and bricks were
thrown from chimneys which had been damaged. A few earth fissures
and small landslides were reported from this area, but no serious
damage.... At Narrows (Va.) large rocks rolled down the mountains.
The sounds were compared by veterans to those made by seige
guns in action.... Minor tremors continued from time to time
until June 6." (MacCarthy, 1964)
"There were fissures in the ground and
small landslides in places where they were easy to start. At
the Narrows ( Va.) it was claimed that a motion like the ground
swell of the ocean was observed." (Eppley, 1965, p. 25).
"Earthquake shocks nightly in Giles
County since the 25th; large fissures have been made." (MWR)
Noises heard from May 3 to May 31 and after.
Shock most severe near Pearisburg. No serious damage, but old
brick houses badly shaken and many chimneys cracked and top bricks
knocked off. Much noise. Many people "terror stricken."
Surface "rolled like the groundswells of the ocean"
and springs were muddied and one large landslide started at the
Narrows. (Campbell, 1898)
Crockery rattled, windows shaken, doors opened and closed, furniture
moved in many houses. Several chimneys knocked down; frame buildings
"seen to sway back and forth." In the business district
"many persons rushed into the streets, fearing that the buildings
would fall.... Felt by everybody and frightened many people."
Terry Building was "noticed
to sway perceptibly and doors standing open in the Masonic Temple
and Commercial Bank building were swung back and forth."
Pictures shaken from walls and bottles from shelves. -- "People
rushed out of their houses expecting them to fall." Shock
scared "a great many people nearly out of their wits."
Several chimneys "shaken to the ground." Tops shaken
off some chimneys and others "partly demolished." (RT
Bedford City, Va.:
Earthquake "severest ever felt here, and caused considerable
consternation . . . . Rocking vibration . . . accompanied by a
dull detonation like that of heavy thunder and a report like that
of a cannon." (RD 6/l/97) "Chimneys of the courthouse,
bank, Windsor Hotel, and several private houses were shaken down.
The walls of several dwellings were cracked, and people rushed
terrified into the streets." (RD 6/l/97)
No serious damage. "Four or five chimneys
toppled over." (RT 6/l/97)
"Very severe earthquake shock.... Shook down chimneys greatly
alarming the citizens who rushed from their houses and places
of business." No other damage. (RD 6/l/97)
"No less than twenty chimneys shaken or split and in some
instances... nearly leveled to the houses." Roofs of some
houses "looked as if mortar and lime had been scattered all
over them." Buildings rocked so much that no shocks were
noticeable in the open ground. "The earth seemed to rise
and fall in waves.... Heaviest earthquake ever known in this section."
"Heavy earthquake shocks....
A great deal of excitement was occasioned at the time, as chimneys
were falling, houses rocking like cradles, and women and children
screaming in terror about the streets." Preceded by "a
heavy rumbling." (RT 6/l/97)
"Quite a severe earthquake shock" - Several chimneys
partly demolished. (RD 6/l/97)
Bristol, Tenn. - Va.:
"Shook the buildings so that the people ran into the streets."
Several chimneys "thrown to the ground." (RD 6/l/97)
Time - 13:15, duration - 30
"A heavy seismic disturbance, with buildings rocking and
chimneys failing." (RD 6/l/97)
Many people "were panic-stricken, running from their houses."
Bricks were thrown from chimneys; in some cases "chimneys were
cracked and thrown several inches out of plumb.... Terrifically
loud" report accompanied the shock. One large tree "was
precipitated down a steep cliff into the creek." (RD 6/l/97)
Felt throughout the city - "Several large buildings were
badly shaken and two chimneys fell. " (RD 6/l/97)
"Startled the citizens
nearly out of their wits." Little damage. (RT 6/l/97)
Several chimneys shaken down.
A "rumbling noise" preceded the shock. Houses rocked,
doors opened, bricks thrown from chimneys. People "rushed into
the streets much excited." Severity of the earthquake "exceeded
any in the recollection of the oldest inhabitant." (RD 6/l/97)
"It was a warm sunshiny day in early
summer when, without warning, buildings along Main Street begun
a rocking movement and the dry timbers in their frames popped
and cracked and the air became full of dust. Many people ran
out of the houses into the street, some whitefaced, and stared
upward where the dust, shaken from the buildings was slowly settling
toward the ground. The tremor lasted only a few minutes before
the panic was over and normal business was resumed along the
street. This earthquake was felt in several counties adjoining
Montgomery, but little damage was reported beyond the cracking
of plaster in a few homes." (NMI Centennial Edition, 12/31/1969)
"Severe." Houses shaken, horses frightened, bricks
thrown from chimneys. "Rumbling noise" preceded and
followed the shock. (RD 6/l/97)
Felt "very perceptible.... Many badly frightened, and rushed
into the streets, and great excitement prevailed for awhile."
Bricks fell from chimneys and "furniture
and crockery jostled." (MacCarthy, 1964)
Time - 13:58 (MWR)
"The vibrations lasted for several seconds and were so violent
that many people ran out of their homes, fearing their collapse."
No material damage. Hotel guests "ran out of their rooms
under the impression that a boiler had burst." Noise "Loud
and startling." Pictures were shaken, shutters "rattled
as if blown by a violent wind" and "furniture was moved
in a number of instances." Many suddenly sick just before
the shock was felt; symptoms "like nausea and swimming of
the head." Convicts at the penitentiary tried to break out.
"The most serious and alarming (earthquake) ever experienced
here." (RD 6/l/97)
Windows, pictures, glassware
rattled violently and unstable objects overthrown. Hundreds of
people left their houses in alarm. (from Washington Post, June
1) (MacCarthy, 1964)
An earthquake shook "buildings
and rattled windows, but no damage was done. The people in many
buildings were badly frightened." (NYT 6/l/97)
Time - 13:59. "Violent
vibrations and loud noises; two shocks, at 13:59 and 14:1l."
Rocky Mount, Va.:
"Severe" Felt by "the entire community."
Accompanied by "rumbling sound, much like that made by the
rapid moving of a wagon or wagons upon the streets." Many
"rushed into the streets from their houses and offices."
Loose bricks thrown from chimneys. (RD 6/l/97)
Just before the shock, "a peculiar noise... resembling the
reverberation of thunder" was heard. Bricks shaken from chimneys,
goods thrown from shelves of stores, no damage. "People rushed
pale and frightened from their houses." (RD 6/l/97)
Houses "were trembling
like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze." (RT 6/l/97)
Letter from Mr. J. H. Hardy
who was a boy of 17 at the time of the earthquake: "Was seated
on a stool at the kitchen table eating when all of a sudden everything
began shaking including the stool I was seated on. My first thought
was that there was a heavy explosion somewhere in the neighborhood.
I didn't get excited -- but finished eating and went down to the
street where everybody was talking about the earthquake."
"A severe and prolonged earthquake shock". . . . Accompanied
by a loud, rumbling noise. Windows rattled, houses shook, and
furniture was overturned. (RD 6/l/97)
"Strong" shock. Bricks shaken from tops of some chimneys.
People "rushed into the streets to ascertain the cause of
the vibrations." Accompanied by "a perceptible roar."
Felt. (RD 6/l/97]
"An earthquake shock shook
Asheville perceptibly. Hundreds of occupants of buildings ran
into the streets. No damage." (NYT 6/l/97)
Time - 13:59. (MWR)
"Distinct." Houses shaken and plastering knocked from
the ceilings. (RD 6/l/97)
Time - 13:58. "Loud roar, chimneys injured." (MWR)
"Very perceptible." Bricks thrown from chimneys. No
damage. (RD 6/l/97)
Plastering knocked down. Doors closed. One public building cracked.
"Quite a severe shock
of earthquake." No damage. (RT 6/l/97)
A few chimneys damaged. (MacCarthy,
"Two shocks, each lasting
30 seconds; chimneys thrown down." (MWR)
"A distinct shock of an earthquake." Walls cracked,
plaster fell, and glass rattled. No general damage. (RD 6/l/97)
Many "badly frightened and ran out of their houses."
"Quite severe." Walls of several houses "seen to
move, and others rocked like a cradle. . . . Crockery and other
things rattled together, and many small things were thrown down."
"The most severe earthquake of any experienced in this section
since the memorable Charleston earthquake in 1886....
A general exodus from stores
and residences to the streets, and consternation reigned supreme
for a few minutes." Some nausea. Bricks shaken off chimneys
at several houses. (RD 6/l/97)
Caused "wild excitement."
No damage. . . beyond shaking
down a few chimneys." (RT 6/l/97)
"The shock was quite severe." (RD 6/l/97)
The people ran out into the
streets. (NYT 6/l/97)
A well caved in; a little plastering fell. Very little damage.
People "greatly alarmed, and rushed very generally from
houses into the streets." (RD 6/1/97)
Time - 13:58 (MWR)
"The largest buildings were shaken and people ran out of
their houses in their fright." No damage. "A severe
earthquake shock." (RD 6/l/97 NYT 6/l/97)
Newport News, Va.:
"Frightened a great many people." More perceptible "near
the edge of the water, where it caused the piers and buildings
to rock." No damage. (RD 6/l/97)
"About 2 p. m. - brief
but violent." (MWR)
"Sufficiently severe to jar the heaviest building, though
causing no damage." Houses "considerably shaken,"
crockery rattled, families so frightened they rushed out into
the street as a means of safety. Large factories "were quickly
emptied of their workmen." Vases broken, gas globes shaken
from chandeliers, crockery moved on shelves. Telephone and telegraph
wires violently shaken. (RD 6/l/97)
Some glassware broken and
goods knocked from shelves; people rushed from houses and factories
(from Raleigh Press - Vista, June 2).
Time - 13:59. "Quite severe,
the first since August 31, 1889." (MWR)
"A very strong earthquake shock." People frightened
from their houses. (RD 6/l/97)
Shock was "very distinct and severe". No damage. "Considerable
scare." (RT 6/l/97)
Shock "quite severe here". Houses shaken, crockery
overturned, people "pretty generally scared.... Some few
ran from their houses, looking appalled at the sudden visitation."
No damage. Crockery and furniture "were put in motion."
Big Stone Gap, Va. and Gate City, Va.:
"A severe earthquake shock.... Even houses were shaken,
clocks stopped and furniture was jostled about." (RD 6/l/97)
"Houses trembled and china and glassware turned over in
some of them. Many persons were alarmed, and some ran out of
their houses." (RD 6/l/97)
Floyd Courthouse, Va.:
Eyewitness remembers the "great excitement it caused among
the school children." (NM, Centennial Edition, 12/31/1969)
"Severest shock ever felt here; brick
and stone walls were cracked." (MWR)
"A heavy earthquake shock-" Some "ran from the
houses badly frightened." (RD 6/l/97)
Greenbay, Va. (Prince Edward County):
"A distinct shock of an earthquake" - The crockery
and other articles in the stores "were badly shaken up."
"Shook buildings so that windows rattled and doors swayed
to and fro on their hinges." (RD 6/l/97)
"Very severe." Felt by "almost everyone in the
place." Some people "ran from their house, fearing they
would fall." (RD 6/1/97)
Warm Springs, Va. and Hot
Springs, Va.: "Shook
the houses and rattled the windows, and made moveable things totter."
Some frightened. (RD 6/l/97)
Felt "here and in the suburbs.... The printers ran out of
the Times-Star office. The occupants of other buildings were alarmed,
and at Coney Island, Chester Park, the Zoo gardens, and elsewhere
there was consternation among the holiday crowds. At the Lagoon,
on the Kentucky side, there was a panic among several thousand
people on the grounds. The waters in the Lagoon were so rough
that the life-saving crew went to the relief of those out on the
electric pleasure boats." (RD 6/l/97)
No damage reported. (RT 6/l/97)
"The shock was general
throughout the State." (NYT 6/l/97)
"Weather Bureau Station,
13:02 - A wave of water started at the southwest extremity of
the lake at Ludlow Lagoon, which by the time it reached the eastern
shore of the lake was over 3 feet high. The earthquake lasted
1 1/2 minutes.- Shock rarely noticed inside the city." (MWR)
The Courier Building "experienced decided vibrations"
to such an extent that "the employees on the fourth and third
floors deserted their posts, greatly frightened." (RD 6/l/97)
Felt. (RT 6/l/97)
The Zanesville, Ohio Times-Recorder
does not mention an earthquake at that time.
"About 1 p.m., alarming
"Windows broken and officials panic-stricken." (MWR)
Chesterfield County, Dinwiddie County,
Va.: Shock "very decided....
Large buildings felt the tremor." A general rattling of windows.
No damage. Accompanied by "a deep, low rumbling noise."
Chase City, Va.:
A "violent earthquake shock." Windows rattled and
buildings shook. "Some heard a roaring sound and few were
frightened." (RD 6/l/97)
Norfolk, Va. and Portsmouth,
Va.: "A distinct
shock of an earthquake followed immediately by a heavier shock....
People rushed into the streets panic-stricken.... Great excitement
prevailed." Many clocks stopped. No damage. (RD 6/i/97)
"Everybody got a good
scare." No damage. (RT 6/l/97)
Time - 13:57 (MWR)
"A slight but very decided earthquake shock". . . felt
throughout Suffolk. Made some dizzy. Windows shaken "as though
by wind." Some ran from their house "startled."
No damage. (RD 6/l/97)
: Chandeliers swayed and floors trembled perceptibly. "It
was noticed at the capitol, in the Telephone Exchange, and in
several of the high buildings. In the Associate Press office,
in the Post Office Building, the vibrations were felt very distinctly."
"Many buildings were considerably
shaken." No damage. (RT 6/l/97)
"What was supposed to
have been an earthquake was felt here.... The vibrations were
felt very distinctly." Self-recording instrument at the Weather
Bureau shows it began at 1:58 1/4 and lasted five minutes. (NYT
"Weather Bureau seismograph
recorded continuous series of shocks from 13:58:15 to 14:03:15."
Felt. (RD 6/l/97
Very little damage. (RT 6/l/97)
"A distinct earthquake
shock.... No damage, but created much excitement." (NYT 6/l/97)
Time - 13:45. "Throughout
the mountain district a violent shock." (MWR)
- "Houses shook, windows rattled, and the earth trembled
with a convulsive motion." Accompanied by a "low rumbling
sound." (RD 6/l/97)
Chesterfield County (Bon Air, Va.) -
"A slight shock of an earthquake... The store buildings
shook, causing things hanging against the walls to rattle."
- "Felt over the entire county of Albemarle, shaking houses
and causing general alarm." Men at large brick freight depot
"rushed out to see what was wrong." (RD 6/l/97)
Nottoway Courthouse, Va.:
-"A very perceptible earthquake ... distinctly felt by many
persons." No damage. Preceded by a "loud rumbling sound
which seemed to roll from southwest to northeast." (RD 6/l/97)
"Perceptibly felt." Heavy rumble, rattling of windows.
People "distinctly saw the sway of a brick building."
Felt. (RT 6/l/97)
Time - 13:59. Heavy rumble
"A distinct earthquake shock." (RD 6/l/97)
Felt by "nearly everybody in town." All recognized it.
"A slight earthquake shock. . . felt throughout East Tennessee
from Bristol to Chattanooga." No damage. (NYT 6/l/97)
"Very slight shock at
1 p.m., duration of 10 seconds, soon followed by second shock."
"A distinct earthquake shock... felt all over Wheeling and
surrounding towns.... Shook brick buildings slightly. No damage."
"Violent enough to shake
brick buildings slightly." (NYT 6/l/97)
Vibrations "preceded by a noise resembling that made by
the rumbling of cars." Houses shaken. Shaking of doors and
windows "distinctly heard". (RD 6/l/97)
"A severe earthquake shock was felt at this point."
(RD 6/1/97) (DL 5/31/97)
Very little damage. (RT 6/l/97)
"Time - 12:32. Adelbert
College seismograph recorded vibrations as being from northeast
to southeast and about 0.01 inch in extent." (MWR)
"A very perceptible shock of an earthquake....Articles
of furniture and some buildings vibrated slightly." (RD 6/l/97)
"A distinct earthquake, shaking buildings and rattling windows....
As severe as that of August, 1886." (Charleston earthquake)
Lester Manor, Va. (King William County)
- "Quite a distinct earthquake shock." Windows and
doors rattled. No damage. (RD 6/l/97)
"Clearly felt." Trembling "not severe.... There
was no excitement." (RD 6/1/97)
"Alarming shake, most
severe since 1884; the quake seems not to have extended into the
Piedmont region." (MWR)
"A distinct earthquake shock." (RD 6/l/97
Lasted about five seconds.
Passed north to south. (NYT 6/l/97)
Shortly after 2 p.m.; duration
- seconds. (MWR)
"An earthquake shock was plainly felt here." Windows
rattled. (RD 6/l/97)
"A slight earthquake shock.... Quite perceptible in high
buildings." (RD 6/l/971
Felt. (NYT 6/l/97)
"13:54 to 13:55, slight
shock; perceptible in buildings, but not on street." (MWR)
"A distinct earthquake shock." (RD 6/l/97)
"An earthquake shock was felt here distinctly and throughout
Southern West Virginia." (DL 5/31/97)
"A slight earthquake shock.... Most noticeable in the fire-tower
and in high buildings." (RD 6/l/97)
"A slight earthquake.... Not noticeable, except in the high
buildings." (RD 6/l/97)
In high buildings a distinct
vibration was felt lasting nearly a minute. (NYT 6/l/97)
New Bern, N.C.:
"A decided shock of an earthquake.... Persons in the upper
part of buildings felt it quite sensibly, while those on the lower
floors and-ground did not perceive it." (RD 6/l/97)
Felt. (RD 6/l/97)
(Sussex County): Felt. (Rd 6/l/97)
Oak, Va. (New Kent County):
Vibrations "as distinct as those of the earthquake of 1886."
(1886 was the Charleston, S.C. earthquake.) (RD 6/l/97)
Stony Creek, Va.:
Felt. (R D 6/1 /97)
: Time - 14:00. (MWR)
Felt; no time given. (MWR)
Time - 14:05, duration - 2 seconds. (MWR)
"A slight earthquake." Windows and doors shaken throughout
the city. Many made dizzy. (RD 6/l/97)
Felt; no time given. (MWR)
Felt (RD 6/l/97)
"Waters in lagoon dangerously rough." (MWR)
Time 14:00, "severe." (MWVR)
Felt. (RD 6/l/97)
Baltimore, Eastern Shore,
Southern Md.: "Three
distinct felt shocks" (MWR)
Time - 14:00. Duration - 15 seconds. (MWR)
Felt. (RD 6/i/97)
Time - 14:00 (MWR)
Duration - 2 seconds. (MWR)
New London, N.C.:
Felt. (RD 6/l/97]
"An earthquake shock was felt here." (RD 6/l/97)
Soapstone Mt., N.C.:
"Rumbling noises." (MWR)
"A slight shock of an earthquake was felt here." (RD
Time - 13:02. Duration - 40
to 50 seconds. Two distinct shocks. (MWR)
Felt. (RD 6/l/97)
Statesburg, S.C.: Time - 13:55
"13:57:30 - Motion of
floor and its creaking were very distinct." (MWR)
Time - 14:10 (MWR)
Time - 10:00 p.m. (?), oscillations for two minutes. (MWR)
Time - 13:15; duration - 30 seconds (MWR)
Time - 12:57 (MWR)
Time - 13:00 (MWR)
Time - 14:02, duration - 12 seconds (MWR)
No details. (MWR)
"Severe shock." (MWR)
"Two shocks between 1 and 2 p.m." (MWR)
From Roanoke, Va.: Telegram received from Saltville denying that
the saltwells had gone dry since the earthquake shock. (RD 6/4/97)
The Lexington Daily Leader carries the story of the earthquake
for other cities, but does not mention its being felt in Lexington.
"Four or five wells went dry during quake." (MWR)