Historic Earthquakes

The Great Earthquake of 1755

Chapter XX
Historic Storms of New England
by Sidney Perley

On November 1, 1755, the city of Lisbon, in Portugal, with its convents, fine churches and royal palaces, was almost totally destroyed by a terrible earthquake, sixty thousand persons being killed by the falling buildings.

Seventeen days later, at a quarter past four o'clock in the morning of Tuesday, November 18, occurred the most destructive and awful earthquake that was ever know in New England. The heavens were clear, the air calm, a Sabbath-like stillness pervaded the region, and at the time of the shock the moon shone brightly, being about two hours high. It was a beautiful night, and nothing uncommon occurred except that the ocean was roaring along its shores louder than usual. The earthquakes in New England have come without announcement as this one did, in all seasons of the year, in all kinds of weather, and at all hours of the day and night.

Earthquakes are of two kinds, one begins with a gentle oscillation, the other comes suddenly, and in a moment templed cities are leveled with the plain. The earthquake of 1727 was of the first kind, while this one was of the latter. It came suddenly like gigantic pulsations of the earth and tossed everything about. This was followed for about a minute's duration with a peculiar tremulous motion of the earth, which some people thought was the resultant motion of the first shock and the gradual lessening of its force. But it was followed instantly by a quick vibration and several jerks, much more terrible than the first had been. Dr. Edward A. Holyoke, of Salem, Mass., wrote in his diary that he "thought of nothing less than being buried instantly in the ruins of the house." It continued longer than that of 1727, occupying from two and a half to three minutes. Its direction was supposed to be from northwest to southeast.

People were in a state of extreme fright, thinking that the earth was in process of dissolution, and a writer of that time said, "I walked out about sunrise, and every face looked ghastly. In fine, some of our solid and pious gentlemen had such an awe and gloom spread over their countenances as would have checked the gay airs of the most intrepid." It is said that in those regions where earthquakes are very common and to be expected, the people are terrorized by them, no familiarity with them removing the awful feeling. No danger of alarm so disturbs a person, and no thought is so terrible as that of the earth crumbling to pieces beneath our feet. "What is safe," exclaimed the wise Seneca, "if the solid earth itself cannot be relied upon?" This feeling disturbed the people of New England more than it would the inhabitants of tropical regions. Animals were also alarmed at the mysterious and awful motions of the ground, and the oxen and cows lowed and hastened to the barns, the only source of protection that they knew, or ran about the fields when no place of refuge offered. Dogs went to their masters' doors and howled, not knowing what else to do; and birds left their perches, and flew into the air, fluttering there a long time, afraid to again alight on the earth. The ocean along the coast was affected as perceptibly as the land, and ships in the harbor at Portsmouth, N.H., were shaken so fiercely that the sailors who were asleep in their berths were rudely awakened, their first thought being that they had struck upon a rock. The river there was also in a similar state of agitation.

At New Haven, Conn., the ground moved with an undulating motion like the waves of the sea; and the houses shook and cracked as if about to fall. Mather Byles said, "It was a terrible night, the most so, perhaps that ever New England saw."

The damage done by this earthquake was far greater than that caused by any other that has been experienced here. The vibratory motion of the earth was so great and sudden that pewter dishes were thrown from the dressers, many clocks were stopped, and the vane-rod on Faneuil hall in Boston, and those on some of the churches, were bent. Much stone wall throughout the country was thrown down, and the shaking of the earth caused a change in the subterranean streams, in consequence of which many wells dried up. The principal damage consisted of the destruction of chimneys, no portion of New England being free from it. In Boston, alone, about one hundred were leveled with the roofs of the houses, and in all about fifteen hundred were shattered and partly thrown down, the streets in some places being almost covered with the fallen bricks. The chimneys were dislocated in all sorts of ways, some being broken several feet from the top, and partly turned as though there had been a swivel at the place. Others fell on the roofs, the sections broken off remaining intact, and having slipped down to the eaves jutted over, being just ready to fall. The roofs of some of the houses were broken in by the chimneys. The wooden buildings were much damaged by being racked, and many in Boston were thrown down. Brick buildings were injured most; and in Boston the gable ends of twelve or fifteen were knocked down to the eaves. In spite of the great danger and many narrow escapes, no person or animal was killed or seriously injured.

In the valley of the Merrimac river, this earthquake was not quite as severe as that of 1727; its noise was not as loud, and it did less damage. The towns along the sea-shore felt it most, and it gradually lessened in forces as it progressed inland. It was felt from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, and in adjoining territories inland for a great distance, the great American lakes feeling it severely as shown by the agitation of their waters. Traces of it still exist in some places after the lapse of more than a century and a third.

About an hour after the first shock of the earthquake, as day broke in the eastern sky, the ground again shook, but with abated force. For four days slight shocks occurred daily, and on Saturday evening the twenty-second of the month, many persons were again alarmed with what proved to be a slight shock only. Again, after the people had retired for the night on the evening of December 19, there were two or three more shocks. Dull and calm weather, with a heavy atmosphere, succeeded the severe shaking of the earth.

Religious services and fasts were held immediately after the first and greatest shock and appeals to God for preservation were made, the people being in a state of almost frenzied excitement. It is impossible to realize the perturbed state of the human mind. In Boston, Dr. Sewall preached from the text: "Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping." (Mark xiii:36.) The next day was kept there as a fast. December 24, Lieutenant-governor Phips ordered a fast, saying in his proclamation therefor that, "It having pleased Almighty God, in a most awful and surprising manner to manifest his righteous anger against the provoking sins of men by terrible and destructive earthquakes and unundations in divers parts of Europe and by a late severe shock of an earthquake on this continent and in this province in particular, which has been succeeded by several others, although less violent than the first." The pastors of Gloucester, Mass., kept a fast on account of the earthquake January 1, 1756, preaching forenoon and afternoon. Educated and ignorant people alike were greatly frightened; and it is said that Rev. Mr. Richardson, then minister at Wells, Maine, died from fear at this time.

The prospect of death turned the minds of the people toward those things that cannot be shaken, and the clergymen improved the opportunity to make a religious impression upon them. Many were led to reflect on the lives they had led, and to seek reconciliation with their Maker, the church membership being considerably increased.