Wheeling Gets All Shock Up
Earthquakes in the Friendly City
by Kate Quinn
Unless you had lived in California and experienced one before, you probably would not have known what that strange sensation was. As my sister Suzanne Quinn sat in her law office and felt an earthquake in downtown Wheeling in September of 1998, she knew exactly what it was having watched the water slosh around in the toilet many times during small quakes in California.
You are sleeping comfortably in your bed when you hear a strange rumbling sound and notice that the room seems to be rolling. You rush downstairs and see that the chandelier
in the dining room is swaying and the water in the pool out back is splashing out of the pool as waves occur. Yes, it’s an earthquake, but no, you don’t live in California. You are a resident of the Friendly City and we just don’t have earthquakes here.
Not true. The first recorded earthquake to strike Wheeling was described in a letter from Josiah Fox to his sister Lovall Fox, in England dated February 15th, 1812. Fox wrote:
“On the 16th of December last, we were alarmed between two and three a.m. by a violent shock of an earthquake which rocked the house considerably. I thought it best to call up all the family and prepare them against any accident. From the cracking noise of the roof, doors, windows, and bedsteads, I expected great damage would ensue. This shock lasted a full fifteen minutes. Since then we have scarcely a day or night without experiencing on or more in an equal or less degree. The surface of the pools shows us that the earth has not been quiet since that period. A stone dwelling house in town was considerably cracked as well as our own kitchen chimney.”
Since no Wheeling newspapers are available from that period and there was no Richter Scale to estimate the strength of the quake, we do not have a general account of the resulting damage of the quake or the public’s general reaction to it. We do know that the quake was centered at New Madrid, Missouri and affected most of the Eastern part of the United States. The aftershocks continued until February of 1812. New Madrid recorded 63 shocks from December 16th to December 31st. The New Madrid earthquake was so severe that it changed the course of the Mississippi river, caused islands in the river to disappear, and generated waves that sank boats or carried them far inland from the riverbank.
Again in August of 1886, Wheeling experienced another quake described in the local paper thus:
“…people were awakened out of a sound sleep and the darkness added to the frightfulness of the situation. Everyone was excited and averse to retiring until more was learned about the terrifying event. It was a visitation such as Wheeling has never had, and it is to be hoped, she will never have another.”
The hardest hit town in this area was Moundsville, but most of the damage was sustained in the city of Charleston, South Carolina where the quake was centered.
Sixty people in Charleston, died as a result of the quake and hundreds were injured. More than two thirds of the city was left uninhabitable. It was about this time that the City of Wheeling passed an ordinance requiring all young men to serve on the Earthquake Brigade which met once a month. Reports by members said that there was little activity at these meetings other than a quenching of thirsts.
Earthquakes were also felt locally in 1935 from a quake centered in Quebec, Canada and another in 1943 that was centered in Ohio. The biggest quake ever felt in Wheeling was in 1897 and was estimated to have been 5.9 on the Richter scale.
Unlike California, we do not have named faults in this area like the San Andreas. Wheeling is situated in a seismic zone that is far from the nearest plate boundaries, which are in the center of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This seismic zone is laced with known faults but numerous smaller or deeply buried faults remain undetected. Even the known faults are poorly located at earthquake depths so few quakes can be linked to named faults.
A quake centered in northwestern Pennsylvania, about 15 miles northeast of Sharon, Pa. rocked Wheeling with a 5.2 earthquake on September 25, 1998. Firefighters were dispatched to the Riley Law Building and the Klos Towers about 4:15 p.m., but no real damage was found. Occupants of the upper floors of the Riley Law Building had felt the quake readily.
The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 9 in 10 chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 temblor occurring in this area in the next 50 years.
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