District of Columbia
No historical earthquake has been centered within the District of Columbia.
Ground vibrations from earthquakes in such seismic regions as the St. Lawrence River Valley, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and South Carolina have been felt by D.C. residents, but have caused no damage. A great earthquake which did considerable damage at Guadeloupe, West Indies, was felt in the Eastern United States, especially at Washington, D.C., in 1843.
The earliest shock that may have affected some sections of Washington occurred on April 24, 1758. Its probable center was near Annapolis, Maryland, and it was felt into Pennsylvania.
A sequence of great earthquakes occurred in the Mississippi Embayment in 1811 and 1812. They were noticed by people over an area of 2 million square miles, including the District of Columbia. District residents were "badly frightened" according to old records.
An earthquake in March 1828 was felt over a wide area, including seven Eastern States and the District of Columbia. Although no damage occurred, it was reported to be "violent" in D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. John Quincy Adams, then President of the United States, left the following account in his diary of the occurrence as he observed the shock at the White House:
March 9, 1828. There was this evening the shock of an earthquake, the first which I ever distinctly noticed at the moment when it happened. I was writing in this book, when the table began to shake under my hand and the floor under my feet. The window shutters rattled as if shaken by the wind, and there was a momentary sensation as of the heaving of a ship on the waves. It continued about two minutes, then ceased. It was about eleven at night. I immediately left writing, and went to my bedchamber, where my wife was in bed, much alarmed.A moderate shock with probably epicenter in Virginia was felt in D.C. on April 29, 1852. It caused no damage in the District, but downed at least one chimney at Wytheville, Virginia.
A moderate shock in August 1861, probably centered in Virginia or North Carolina, was felt along the Atlantic coast from the District to South Carolina. Throughout most of the area, it was strong enough to awaken people, and to rattle doors and windows. Two shocks, at five second intervals, were noted at D.C.
A shock in September 1884 near Columbus, Ohio, was distinctly felt by District workmen on top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, 500 feet above ground. The tremor caused light effects in Ohio, Indiana, and parts of adjacent States.
A Virginia earthquake in October 1885 was felt strongly at Staunton and Lexington, and was claimed to have been felt by at least one perceptive person in Washington, D.C. The shock sent people running from buildings near its center, and shook furniture and windows.
The destructive South Carolina shock in August 1886 was probably felt by D.C. residents. At Alexandria, Virginia, there was considerable alarm, and many rushed into the streets. It killed 60 Charleston, South Carolina, citizens and caused heavy property damage. It is speculated that its magnitude was at least 7 on the Richter scale. An aftershock on October 22 was also felt north to D.C.
A tremor in May 1897, more popularly known as the Giles County (Virginia) earthquake, was felt in D.C. Near its epicenter (Pearisburg area), old brick houses and chimneys were cracked, bricks were thrown from chimney tops, and slight ground fissures were noted. This was the strongest earthquake in Virginia's history.
A moderate tremor in the Luray, Virginia, area in April 1918 reportedly broke windows in D.C. Earth sounds were heard over a very large area. Windows broke and plaster badly cracked in Shenandoah Valley.
A magnitude 7 earthquake in Canada's St. Lawrence River region shook a 2 million square mile area in February 1925. The felt area included Washington, D.C.
Another Canadian earthquake in November 1935 caused minor damage in New York and was felt south to Washington. The magnitude 6 1/4 tremor shook U.S. residents from Maine to Wisconsin.
Abridged from Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 2, Number 4, July-August 1971.
For a list of earthquakes that have occurred since this article was written, use the Earthquake Search.