Historic Earthquakes

The Earthquake of 1727

Chapter XIV
Historic Storms of New England
by Sidney Perley

The greatest earthquake that New England has probably experienced since its settlement by the English occurred October 29, 1727. The people had suffered much in various ways through the summer and early autumn. A drought continued from the middle of June to the middle of September, the month of July and the first week of August being exceedingly hot. No rain fell in April after the first week, and but twice in May, only one of two slight showers occurring during the sultry, parching heat of the summer. The earth dried to a great depth, and many wells and springs, which had never failed before were now dry. There was much lightning and thunder, but very little rain. On the evening of August 1, at the close of a scorching day, the heavens burst out into a blaze of flame and a roar of thunder, the terrific display continuing for two or three hours. The flashes occurred so frequently that the sky was continually light with them and a writer of that time said it seemed "as if the heavens being on fire were dissolving and passing away with a great noise, and the earth also with its works was to be burned up."

After the drought was broken a violent northeast storm came on, doing much damage among the vessels along the coast, and the trees on shore. This occurred September 16. It caused a high tide which carried away about two hundred loads of hay from the marshes at Newbury, Mass., and drove eight or nine vessels ashore at Salem and thirty-five at Marblehead.

After the lightning, thunder, and tempest the country was visited by a tremendous earthquake. October 24, 1727, the weather was very cold; three days later, snow fell, and on the 28th the temperature was still exceedingly low for the season. Sunday, the 29th, was fair and pleasant, and in the evening the moon shone brightly, the air was calm, and no noise disturbed the peacefulness of nature. People retired at their usual hour, and were fast asleep, when at twenty minutes before eleven o'clock a terrible noise followed by a roar and a rush suddenly woke them, and in about half a minute, before they had time to become conscious of what was taking place around them, there came a pounce as if gigantic cannons had rolled against each other from opposite directions. Latches leaped up and doors flew open, houses rocked and trembled as though they would collapse, timber worked in and out of mortises, hearth-stones grated against each other, windows rattled, tops of chimneys pitched and tumbled down, cellar walls fell in, beds shook, pewter fell off shelves, lids of warming pans jumped up and fell back with a clang, and all movable things, especially in the upper rooms, tossed about.

Most people got up in a moment, and many of them ran out of doors in their night clothes, being so frightened that they knew not what to do. The earth shook so much that they could not stand, and were compelled to sit or recline on the ground.

People that were awake when the earthquake came said that a flash of light preceded it. It was seen as it passed the windows, and a blaze seemed to run along the ground, dogs that saw it giving a sudden bark as if frightened. Before they had time to consider the source or cause of the light a sound like a gentle murmur floated to them on the still evening air, followed by a slight ruffling wind. Then came a rumbling as of distant thunder, which approached nearer and nearer and grew louder and louder till it sounded as if innumerable heavy carriages were being rapidly driven over pavements, or like the roaring of a great furnace, but incomparably fiercer and more terrible, having a hollow sound as if it came from under the earth. Then the shock came suddenly and severely and the houses were felt to totter and reel with the trembling and heaving of the ground.

The noise and shake came from the northwest, and went in a south-easterly direction. The whole disturbance occurred within the space of two minutes of time.

The cattle ran bellowing about the fields, being thoroughly frightened at this sudden and fearful commotion in the still hours of night. They acted as though suffering from the greatest distress.

At eleven o'clock another shock came, less effective and quieter than the first, but heavy enough to keep the people in a state of fear. At a quarter before twelve another came, and many of the people would not return to their beds, but dressed, and prepared to stay up the remainder of the night, being uncertain as to what might occur before morning came, and apprehending destruction. At Londonderry, N.H., when the pastor of the town, Rev. Mr. MacGregor, became aware of what was occurring around him, his Scottish heart being full of sympathy for the people of his charge, he at once arose, dressed, and started out. He was met by some one with the reminder that this family would need his presence. "Oh!" said he, "I have a still greater family which I must care for." He hastened toward their houses, but had not gone far before he met large numbers of them flocking to his own dwelling, seeking advice and comfort in the trying and dreadful hour. At Salem, Mass., the people sat up nearly all night; and at Rowley they flocked to the house of Rev. Edward Payson, the minister of the town, as if he were able to succor them from pending harm; but the house being too small to hold so large a number, the meeting house was opened at that midnight hour, and there the remainder of the night was spent in prayer and supplication. Rev. Benjamin Colman of Boston wrote the next day that he and his family arose, and did not retire until two o'clock in the morning, spending the time in humble cries to God for themselves and their neighbors and in fervent praises to him for their preservation.

The shocks were repeated at three and five o'clock, but with abated force, and in due time the sun slowly rose in the eastern sky, greeting with a complacent face the disconsolate and fearful inhabitants. It was a night never to be forgotten by those who experienced it.

In the towns along the Merrimac river the earthquake was felt more severely than in any other section of New England. A vast deal of stone walls was thrown down in addition to those injuries which occurred generally in New England. The geological formation that forms the bed of the river is of the primary order, which would naturally be affected more by an internal shock than if it were of a later origin.

An incident worthy of record occurred on the island of Newcastle, near Portsmouth, N.H. At the hour of midnight, on the very quiet night of the earthquake, when the people were trembling with fear, the silvery voice of the bell of the old church there pealed forth from the belfry. This heightened the feelings of the people, and to the ignorant it seemed to be a knell rung forth by mystic hands. To the more phlegmatic citizens it was but the result of the shaking of the church by natural means; yet the surroundings, the time, and the dreadful commotion could not fail to impress them with a solemn dread.

At Cape Cod this shock was felt much more than that of 1638. At Dorchester, Mass., the noise seemed to come from the Blue mountains, which some people, who were out of doors when the shock came, supposed to have suddenly sunk. At Rowley, tops of many chimneys were thrown down; at Portsmouth, N.H., several were cracked and others shattered, and the greater portion of Newbury, Mass., suffered in the same manner. In the latter place the chimneys of Mr. Knight and Mr. Toppan are particularly mentioned as having fallen, and the door-stone of Benjamin Plummer fell into the cellar.

Brick houses were much cracked and in many places considerably shattered. But the principal damage consisted in the breaking of dishes and injuries to tops of chimneys, in many cases a few bricks only being knocked off, though in others the chimneys were so shaken as to make it necessary to rebuild them. Not a wooden house was broken nor a person or animal injured.

The islands off the coast were shaken as much as the mainland, and the water of the ocean was in a state of great commotion, its roar being much louder than usual. Mr. Carr, in his time a prominent boat-builder of Nantucket, ran out of the house when the earthquake came, jumped into his boat, and rowed out on the boisterous waves, being afraid that the island would sink. Seamen who were upon the coast said that it seemed as if their vessels had suddenly struck upon a sand bar.

The earthquake had considerable effect upon the character of land, springs and wells. Some upland was changed into quagmire and in a few instances marsh land was raised up, being afterward too dry for its native grass to grow upon it. In the meadow near the house then owned and occupied by Samuel Bartlett at Newbury, Mass., a new spring of water was opened. At Hampton, N.H., a spring which had boiled over ever since it was first known, a period of eighty years, having never frozen, was so affected that the water failed to rise to the surface of the ground, and afterward froze in moderate weather. The water of some wells was improved in quality, while in others it was made permanently impure. Some became dry, and the temperature of several was greatly changed. There has been related an instance of a well thirty - six feet deep being affected by the earthquake. The water in it had always been very sweet and pure, but about three days before the shock the owner was surprised to find that it smelled so badly no use could be made of it; and that its odor so permeated the rooms into which it was brought that in a very few minutes' time it became unbearable. It was thought that some carrion had got into the well, but on a thorough examination it was found to be free from everything that was offensive, though the water was of a chalky color. It continued in this condition for seven days after the earthquake, and then commenced to change for the better, wholly resuming its original sweetness and appearance after the lapse of three more days.

Remembering that cities and other places had been swallowed by the action of earthquakes, some people in New England were alarmed lest they might be destined to such an end. There was indeed some foundation for such an idea, for chasms a foot or more in width were opened at some places, as at Newbury, Mass., where there were more than ten in the low clay ground, fine white sand and ashes being forced up through them in varying quantities. In one place near Spring island in that town were thrown up from sixteen to twenty loads of sand with some slight indications of sulphur. By throwing some of the sand on hot coals in a dark room blue sulphurous flames and a slight odor of brimstone were detected. In another place near the same island, about forty or fifty rods from the residence of Henry Sewall, the ground opened, and for several days water boiled out of the crevice like a spring. Within three weeks it became dry, and the earth closed.

The people of New England were affected by this earthquake as they had never been before, being fearful of divine judgments for their sins and lax responsiveness to the call to religious duties. The clergy taught them that it was "a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God." The next morning great numbers of the inhabitants of Boston gathered at the old North church for prayer and other religious services. The fear of further immediate danger was somewhat dispelled in the pleasant sunlight, but as soon as the sun had set their fright returned, and in greater numbers than in the morning the people crowded to the old Brick church, which could not hold them. The old South was then opened, and those who failed of admission to the Brick church flocked thither, and that was also filled. Rev. Thomas Paine of Weymouth, Mass., and some other ministers, tried to prove to their congregations that the earthquake had not a natural cause, but was a supernatural token of God's anger to the sinful world.

The selectmen of Medford, Mass., appointed the next Wednesday as a day to be observed by fasting and prayer on account of the earthquake; and Lieutenant-governor Dummer recommended that Thursday should be kept in the same way for the same purpose throughout the province. Many sermons delivered on the latter and other days were printed and are still extant. In Salem, Mass., a meeting was held on Saturday at the upper meeting-house (then so called) which was attended by the largest congregation that was ever in that edifice.

The clergy improved the opportunity of leading the public mind toward the choice of a better portion than this earth can afford. The people were willing to be taught, and ready to believe, for the event they had just passed through convinced them of the uncertainty of temporal things, and a needed preparation for the life to come. Many who had before cared nothing for a religious life became penitent and devout. Seriousness was the expression on the faces of most of the people, and in some towns, large numbers were added to the church. In the parish of Chebacco in Ipswich, Mass., for instance seventy-six persons became church members. The earthquake had its effect upon some licentious characters, who became truly reformed, and afterward led honorable and moral lives. But, in too many cases, when their fears were gone, the religious thoughts and habits of the people lost their hold upon them.

Shocks of the earthquake continued at intervals through the following week, and from time to time during November and December, growing less and less in force. The great one was felt in New York and Pennsylvania, and it extended all along the coast to the Gulf of Mexico, doing considerable damage in the West India islands.

This, unlike the earthquake of 1755, was not preceded by great convulsions in other portions of the globe; and up to that time it was the severest one ever known in New England.

N.B.: Although the earthquake occurred on 10 November 1727, this article lists the earthquake as having occurred on 29 October 1727. This time discrepancy is due to the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar.