Hi, Winnie Griggs here. I’ve always been intrigued by the snippets I heard here and there about the time the Mississippi ran backwards, but I never followed up to learn more. The other day I heard another reference to it and decided it was time to do a bit of research. I thought I’d relay a little of what I learned to you here.
Here in America, when the subject of earthquakes comes up, most of us immediately think of California. But there is an earthquake-prone area in the Central Mississippi Valley known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone. It’s also been called the Reelfoot Rift and the New Madrid Fault Line. The fault runs from southern Illinois to Arkansas, cutting through sections of Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in between.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, a series of earthquakes which occurred over a four month period, shook the area. These started on December 16, 1811 and the first two, only six hours apart, had an epicenter in northeast Arkansas. I was surprised to learn that these quakes have been billed as the most powerful in US history.
They had magnitudes of 8.1 and 7.0 respectively. Because of the scarcity of settlements in the area at this time, there was little damage to man-made structures. The natural environment, however, was violently affected, with the opening and closing of fissures on the earth’s surface, landslides and violent waves on waterways, most notably the Mississippi.
On January 23, 1812, a quake with a 7.8 magnitude struck, this time with an epicenter in southeastern Missouri, an area known as the ‘bootheel’. Again there was landslides, land warping and rerouting of rivers and streams.
Then, on February 7, 1812 an earthquake of magnitude 7.4 struck at New Madrid, Missouri. The entire town was destroyed and this time there were numerous first person accounts of the damage. Witnesses spoke of the ground breaking open, of the sinking and rising of large lands masses, of the ground rolling fluidly like the waves of the ocean. Water poured into the sunken landmasses from ground fissures and entire hillsides were flattened while lowlands became ridges and bluffs. In Arkansas, swampy places along the St Francis River suddenly spewed out sand and coal. The level of the river itself rose by some twenty-four feet. Below are a few eyewitness accounts:
“In more open country the surface of the earth could be seen to undulate in regularly advancing waves proceeding at about the pace of a trotting horse”
“…the earth was rocked about like a cradle & its surface rolling like waves a few feet high & in places causing fissures in the earth from which large volumes of warm water, sand & charcoal was blown up…”
“…at that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move from their roots, the ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake…”
Along the Mississippi River, banks caved in, islands disappeared, boats were overturned or washed away. The very course of the mighty river was permanently altered. And for a time, it appeared that the Mississippi did indeed flow backwards. What actually happened, according to scientists is the following:
A thrust fault created a sudden waterfall and two dams on the Mississippi River’s Kentucky Bend. Additional falls may have also been created in other areas. These geographical uplifts caused a severe disruption of the river, generating a major upstream wave and retrograde current as the river adjusted to these changes.
One eye-witness account put it this way:
“… we tied up eight miles north of New Madrid near the house of my cousin… In a moment, so great a wave come up the river that I never seen one like it at sea. It carried us back north, up-stream, for more than a mile. The water spread out upon the banks — covering three or four miles inland. It was the current going backward. Then this wave stopped, and slowly the river went right again.”
The writer in me is fascinated by these accounts. Can you picture these scenes, can you imagine the untold stories of loss and courage, tragedy and sacrifice that must have occurred during these events? What part of this story speaks to you the most?