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Recent Maryland earthquakes have been mild, but in 1886 one made some in Baltimore think their homes were haunted

Severe Maryland earthquakes are fairly rare, which ensures that they make headlines whenever one rumbles across the region.

A 2.6 magnitude earthquake rattled the area June 25, followed two days later by a 1.7 aftershock whose epicenter was near the Edmondson Village Shopping Center in West Baltimore, reported the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Earlier this month, a 2.1 magnitude quake struck near Clarksville in Howard County. Its epicenter was Heritage Heights Park and could be felt as far north as Eldersburg and southward to Silver Spring.

No injuries or damage resulted from the earthquakes, which were deemed minor. According to the USGS, a 5.3 quake is considered moderate while a quake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale is classified as a strong one.

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The Maryland Geological Survey classifies the mid-Atlantic and central Appalachian region as having a “moderate amount of low-level earthquake activity.”

The first reported quake in Maryland occurred April 25, 1758, striking south of Annapolis, but there are no records as to its strength, according to the Maryland Geological Survey. Experts estimate its magnitude was probably a 3.5 or 3.7. The strongest confirmed temblor was a 3.1 that rolled through Hancock in Western Maryland in 1978.

“What accounts for the earth’s rocking and rolling beneath Maryland at times can be blamed on the Marticville line, two rock strata that roughly parallel the Mason-Dixon Line,” The Sun reported in a 1986 article.

The earthquake that Baltimoreans would talk about for years wasn’t even from around here.

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It was the great Charleston, South Carolina, earthquake of Aug. 31, 1886, that jangled nerves not only in Baltimore, but as far north as Boston, and westward to Chicago and Milwaukee, and as far south as New Orleans.

The jolts from that quake, estimated to be a magnitude of 7.0, were felt even in Cuba and Bermuda.

Starting at 9:50 p.m., the quake rumbled northward and by the time the shaking arrived in Baltimore at 10:05 p.m., it literally threw residents out of their beds and crashed dishes to the floor from cupboards, prompting the terrified to flee into the street thinking their houses were haunted, The Sun reported.

For an hour after the seismic event unfolded, phones rang wildly in the city room of the newspaper then located in the Sun Iron Building on East Baltimore Street, from the frightened and curious, seeking more particulars on what transpired.

Cracks from the August 2011 earthquake spread in the basement of the Baltimore Basilica, six years after a $40 million restoration of the oldest Catholic cathedral in the nation. A device monitors structural shifts.
Cracks from the August 2011 earthquake spread in the basement of the Baltimore Basilica, six years after a $40 million restoration of the oldest Catholic cathedral in the nation. A device monitors structural shifts. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

“Coming as the shaking did at a time of the year when malaria is supposed to stalk about, it was suggested that, perhaps the earth was having its little malarial attack due to the sudden drop in the thermometer yesterday,” reported The Sun the next morning. “Whatever caused the shock there was a very perceptible tremor of the earth about five minutes past ten o’clock and continued about half a minute.”

At Guilford, which was the summer estate of A.S. Abell, founder of The Sun, the house rattled while the chandeliers swayed to and fro, reported an astonished Abell.

An Oak Street resident telephoned his North Charles Street pharmacy and “received the intelligence that the bottles in the establishment were dancing as if in high glee,” reported the newspaper.

A man living near the intersection of Broadway and Bank Street thought he was suffering an attack of vertigo as his desk moved from side to side while he was working. Another man sitting in his home was made “giddy” as his chair slid across the room while pictures on the wall bounced up and down from the vibration.

Young women dancing at 146 N. Charles St., stopped as soon as the floor began quivering beneath their feet, and on Barre Street, a Mrs. Buckey’s bed shook so violently that she thought a man was hiding underneath it, reported The Sun.

Frederick County farmers told the newspaper the quake shook for a duration of more than two minutes while reports came in from Cambridge that it had caused “nausea with a number of people who had been sleeping.”

For one Baltimorean, the quake proved to be a good thing. For years, a Mr. Thackermann had been bedeviled by two windows in his Eutaw Street office that he had been unable to close; they suddenly fell with a crash.

The captain of an inbound steamer, the Ewing, a revenue cutter approaching the bay, gave this account to The Sun of the quake’s strike.

“A strong gale came from the north. All at once there was a strange and weird appearance about everything. Nothing looked natural. In the heavens the stars were shooting in all directions, and the breaking seas were charged with phosphorus to such a pronounced degree that no one on board recollected ever seeing such a display,” he said.

While the quake killed 38 Charlestonians, wrecked telegraph lines and railroad tracks and cut the city off from the outside world, damage in Baltimore was mainly confined to broken crockery, glassware, and, in many cases, jangled nerves.

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