Historic Earthquakes

Owens Valley, California
1872 03 26 10:30 UTC
Magnitude 7.4

Owens Valley, California The most devastating effects of this earthquake occurred at Lone Pine, where 52 of 59 houses (mostly constructed of adobe or stone) were destroyed and 27 people were killed. A few fatalities also were reported in other parts of Owens Valley. One report states that the main buildings were thrown down in almost every town in Inyo County. About 100 kilometers south of Lone Pine, at Indian Wells, adobe houses sustained cracks. Property loss has been estimated at $250,000.

Faulting occurred on the Owens Valley fault along a line of a few kilometers east of the Sierra Nevada escarpment. The faulting near Lone Pine involved both dip-slip and right-lateral components of movement. The largest amount of surface deformation was observed between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence, but fault scarps formed along a length of at least 160 kilometers - from Haiwee Reservoir, south of Olancha, to Big Pine; cracks formed in the ground as far north as Bishop. The largest horizontal displacement of 7 meters was measured on the fault scarps west of Lone Pine. The vertical offsets clearly were smaller, averaging about 1 meter with the downthrown block on the east.

A comparison of this earthquake to the earthquakes of 1857 and 1906 on the San Andreas fault shows the felt area and maximum fault displacements to be comparable. However, the shocks on the San Andreas fault ruptured the fault for significantly larger distances - 300 kilometers in 1857 and 430 kilometers in 1906.

This earthquake stopped clocks and awakened people at San Diego to the south, Red Bluff to the north, and Elko, Nevado, to the east. MM intensity VIII or larger was observed over an area of about 25,000 square kilometers, and MM intensity IX or larger was observed over and area of about 5,500 square kilometers. The shock was felt over most of California and much or Nevada. Thousands of aftershocks occurred, some servere.

23ft-high fault scarp caused by the March 26, 1872, Owens Valley, California, earthquake
A 23-ft-high fault scarp caused by the March 26, 1872, Owens Valley, California, earthquake. (Photograph by W.D. Johnson.)

Abridged from Seismicity of the United States, 1568-1989 (Revised), by Carl W. Stover and Jerry L. Coffman, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.

See also: John Muir and the March 26, 1872, Owens Valley Earthquakes.