Earthquake History

Massachusetts was the sixth state of the original thirteen to enter the Union (1788). However, the region was visited by English explorers as early as 1602, followed by the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. The early settlers compiled the extensive historical accounts that are now available. Nineteen earthquakes, intensity V or greater, have centered in Massachusetts. A number of other earthquakes were centered off the coast of Massachusetts and affected the eastern portion of the State. A shock in 1755 reached intensity VIII at Boston and was felt across the State. In addition, Massachusetts was affected by some of the more severe Canadian shocks plus the earthquake of 1929 that centered on Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Strong earthquakes in the St. Lawrence Valley in 1638, 1661, 1663, and 1732 were felt in Massachusetts. The 1638 and 1663 shocks damaged chimneys at Plymouth, Salem, and Lynn. On June 11, 1643, Newbury, Massachusetts, was strongly shaken. Again in 1727 (November 9) an earthquake described as "tremendous" in one report and "violent" in another caused much damage at Newbury. The shock was felt from the Keenebec River to the Delaware River and from ships at sea to the extreme western settlements. Several strong aftershocks were reported from the area through February 1728.

Eastern Massachusetts was shaken moderately on February 17, 1737, and June 24, 1741. Then on June 14, 1744, large numbers of bricks were shaken from tops of chimneys at Boston and other towns and stone walls were shaken down. Many persons in Newbury and Ipswich were alarmed. The earthquake was reported felt severely at Falmouth, Maine.

On November 18, 1755, one of the most significant earthquakes in the northeastern region occurred off Cape Ann. At Boston walls and chimneys were thrown down and stone fences were knocked down (intensity VIII, Modified Mercalli scale). Some descriptions mentioned violent movement of the ground, like waves of the sea, making it necessary to cling to something to prevent being thrown to the ground. At Pembroke and Scituate small chasms opened in the earth through which fine sand reached the surface. Large numbers of fish were killed and many people on vessels felt shocks as if the ships were striking bottom. This earthquake was felt from Lake George, New York, to a point at sea 200 miles east of Cape Ann, and from Chesapeake Bay to the Annapolis River, Nova Scotia, about 300,000 square miles. Reports of a seismic sea wave reaching the West Indies following the earthquake appear to be erroneous. A tsunami had occurred in the West Indies on November 1, 1755, following the great Lisbon earthquake, which apparently led to a report of its association with the Cape Ann earthquake.

Little information is known about an earthquake that occurred on October 5, 1817. Walls were reported thrown down at Woburn (VII - VIII), but additional details are lacking.

Moderate earthquakes in 1847 (August 8), 1852 (November 27), 1854 (December 10), 1876 (September 21), 1880 (May 12), 1903 (January 21 and April 24), 1907 (October 15), 1925 (January 7 and April 24), 1940 (January 28), and 1963 (October 16 and 30), were felt over limited areas of eastern Massachusetts. The epicenter of the January 7, 1925, shock was off Cape Ann; the reported felt area extended from Providence, Rhode Island, to Kennebunk, Maine. The October 16, 1963, shock caused some plaster to fall at Sommerville; in addition a wall was reported cracked and stones fell from a building foundation (intensity VI). Dishes were broken and many persons were alarmed at Amesbury, and a window was cracked at Winthrop. The other earthquakes did not exceed intensity V.

The residents of Nantucket Island were jolted by a moderate earthquake on October 24, 1965. Very slight damage, mostly to ornaments, was reported. Doors, windows, and dishes rattled, and house timbers creaked.

Abridged from Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 5, Number 5, September - October 1973, by Carl A. von Hake.

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