Cover image for The big one : the earthquake that rocked early America and helped create a science
The big one : the earthquake that rocked early America and helped create a science
Page, Jake.
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Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Physical Description:
xii, 239 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
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QE535.2.U6 P34 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In the early 1800s a series of gargantuan earth tremors seized the American frontier. Tremendous roars and flashes of eerie light accompanied huge spouts of water and gas. Six-foot-high waterfalls appeared in the Mississippi River, thousands of trees exploded, and some 1,500 people -- in what was then a sparsely populated wilderness -- were killed. A region the size of Texas, centered in Missouri and Arkansas, was rent apart, and the tremors reached as far as Montreal. Forget the 1906 earthquake -- this set of quakes constituted the Big One.
The United States would face certain catastrophe if such quakes occurred again. Could they? The answer lies in seismology, a science that is still coming to grips with the Big One.
Jake Page and Charles Officer rely on compelling historical accounts and the latest scientific findings to tell a fascinating, long-forgotten story in which the naturalist John James Audubon, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, scientists, and charlatans all play roles. Whether describing devastating earthquakes or a dire year in a young nation, The Big One offers astounding breadth and drama.

Author Notes

Jake Page was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 24, 1936. He received a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1958 and a master's degree from the Graduate Institute of Book Publishing at New York University in 1960.

He worked for Doubleday as an editor of Anchor Books. In 1962, he was put in charge of Natural History Press, which also gave him responsibility for Natural History magazine. He eventually took the job of science content editor for Smithsonian magazine. He also wrote a monthly science column for the magazine entitled Phenomena, Comment and Notes. His columns for Smithsonian and Science were collected in Pastorale: A Natural History of Sorts and Songs to Birds.

He wrote dozens of books on the wonders of science including earthquakes, dinosaurs, arctic exploration, zoos, and the languages of cats and dogs. He then turned his attention to the Indians of the American Southwest. He retired from Smithsonian magazine in the late 1970s to help photographer Susanne Anderson on a book documenting the Hopi tribe. Hopi was published in 1982 and followed by Navajo in 1995.

His other books include Lords of the Air: The Smithsonian Book of Birds written with Eugene S. Morton, The Big One: The Earthquake That Rocked Early America and Helped Create a Science written with Charles B. Officer, The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery written with J. M. Adovasio, In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians, and Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom. He also wrote five mystery novels including The Stolen Gods and The Lethal Partner. He died from vascular disease on February 10, 2016 at the age of 80.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The three largest earthquakes ever to strike the continental United States occurred in December 1811 and January 1812 near New Madrid, Mo.; the third quake is estimated to have reached magnitude 8.3. (The 1906 San Francisco quake, by comparison, was a magnitude 7.6.) Journalist Page and Dartmouth geologist Officer (who also coauthored Tales of the Earth) use the 1811-1812 events to provide a brief history of the science of seismology and a basic primer on the current state of geological knowledge. Although the writing is uneven, the authors do a credible job of describing the horrors of a cataclysm that occurred almost two centuries ago. They conclude that earthquakes of the New Madrid sort, which occur in the middle of a continental plate rather than at the confluence of two plates, such as those along the San Andreas Fault, are much less well understood and thus more difficult to predict. Moving further afield, they describe failed attempts to predict earthquakes, focusing in large part on the gullibility of the press to "false prophets" of doom. Given that a repeat of the events of 1811-1812 would likely kill thousands and wreak havoc in such cities as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Memphis, this light volume is worth perusing. Agent, Joe Regal. (June 17) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

The New Madrid seismic zone in Missouri's boot heel is a tectonic oddity because most quakes occur at plate boundaries. Authors Page and Officer delve into the geological history of the area, which begins, and, to the anxiety of inhabitants between St. Louis and Memphis, certainly won't end with the famous set of earthquakes that occurred in 1811-12. Amid those who marveled at the Mississippi flowing backwards were more knowledgeable people who happened to be on the frontier at the time. For example, Jared Brooks set up a primitive seismic detector, and his data proved useful to future scientists. Theories on the causes of earthquakes form a large secondary theme here. Readers benefit from the authors' discussion of faults and seismographs, even as they remain glued to the authors' primary attraction, theories of New Madrid's seismic activity (a failed rift? intrusion of magma?) and its potential to cause a cataclysm. The authors turn in a solid presentation; strong regional interest combined with the natural audience for earthquake stories will boost demand for this title. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-This book transforms historical descriptions of the massive earthquakes associated with the New Madrid fault zone in the Mississippi valley in 1811-1812 into an informative, well-written investigation of the development of the science of seismology. The authors describe how scientists, engineers, and others tried to understand what caused buildings and other structures to be destroyed by earthquakes and how corrective and protective measures could save lives and ensure increased margins of security. Students of the history of science and engineering will be intrigued to read about the critical influence of Scottish engineers working with Japanese colleagues to develop new methods for measuring these upheavals, and how that work led to new codes of building practice. The development of the Richter scale is discussed, along with recent advances in ways to describe the severity of earthquakes, and the ways that new studies have generated more precise estimates of the strength of historical earthquakes. Line drawings of historically important seismograph measuring devices as well as maps showing the New Madrid fault zone and other areas of earthquake activity around the world are included. This readable title will appeal to those interested in the causes of earthquakes, their effects on man-made structures, and the impact of natural processes on human society.-Ted Woodcock, George Mason University, Arlington, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction: Reelfoot's FollyYou stand at the end of a well-constructed boardwalk over the relatively opaque and windblown water of the lake. Cypress trees with their feathery green foliage stand sociably in the shaded water among the knobbly remains of their immediate ancestors. The bottoms of the tree trunks flare out just above the water line and are called knees. A few hundred yards out, a fisherman's dinghy bobs in the water. This is Reelfoot Lake, in the northwestern corner of Tennessee, and its dancing waters glisten in the sun. It does not look like earthquake country. But Reelfoot Lake, some twenty miles long and up to six miles across, was created by the worst earthquakes ever to strike the lower forty- eight states of America. To get here, you drive about a hundred miles north from Memphis, slowing down to pass through trim little towns strung along the mostly straight highway like beads. Here in these towns there is much manicuring of lawns, and Jesus abides, ubiquitous. It appears to be a serene and trusting existence in this part of Tennessee, and it just does not look like earthquake country. A few miles closer than Reelfoot Lake to the huge muddy Mississippi River, and beyond its western bank in the boot heel of Missouri, the land is flatvastly, enormously flata place of huge agricultural fields broken here and there by long stands of trees, and on the horizon a long rise of land: a levee, designed to tame the river. Indeed the vast flat land appears to be thoroughly tamed, as most agricultural lands are. It is a serene landscape, if a monotonous one, and it simply does not look like what you would think was earthquake country. In fact, this is part of the most seismically active region east of the Rocky Mountains and some fifteen hundred miles or so east of the San Andreas Fault, which, as everyone knows, is another way to spell "earthquake." Tremors, most of them too slight to be felt, occur here regularly, almost daily, and all you need to do if your goal in life is to feel an earthquake under your feet is to stand around this place for a few months. A Magnitude 4 could well be your reward. Or instead of just standing here, you might try to find the Reelfoot Scarp. A scarp is an abrupt rise, like a cliff, and in this case the name would seem to be a bit of hyperbole on the part of the geologists. In most of its length the Reelfoot Scarp does not rise more than a foot or two above the surround, and at many places along its length it is simply not present for an untrained pilgrim. With superb directions and a nondigital odometer in your car, you might find it crossing State Route 78 a bit less than three miles north of Tiptonville, Tennessee. It is a tiny rise upholstered by corn plants and looking as mild as an old easy chair. But whatever it was that caused the Reelfoot Scarp also created Reelfoot Lake. The scarp evidently rose high enough to cut off Reelfoot Creek, which, earlier, led into the Mississippi. The land sank and the waters built up, covering cypress forests that still can be seen, witchlike remnants with old dead branches swaying ever so slightly under the water. The locals will tell you that, sure, there was the Big One, but ponds, water, maybe even lakes always existed where Reelfoot Lake now lies. Probably true. This is a watery part of the world. After all, the Mississippi originally the product of the rapid melting of the glaciers to the north some fifteen thousand years agohas changed beds with the frequency of a call girl. The locals, who seem a bit defiant, still also have a certain fondness for a group called the Night Riders who plied these lakeshores back around the turn of the twentieth century. There was a problem about whether the shores were to be the private preserve of a few landowners or open to the public. The Night Riders, adorned with masks made of wheat sacks, evidently terrorized the private landowners and, overcome with righteousness, also took to disciplining any local moral lapsesfor example, whipping a young woman who wore clothes they judged to be too cheerful and bright and therefore provocative. After a few years of this sort of vigilantism, the state took over the lake and made it a state park, which it remains today, happily, and the Night Riders disbanded. In addition to the not altogether denigrated antics of the Night Riders, there is an Indian legend that explains the odd name of the lake. It is said that the chief of a village nearby had the misfortune of being slightly crippled by a clubfoot. His gait was therefore hampered, and he was called Reelfoot. After several years of adulthood and chieftainship had passed, he still had not been able to attract a mate from among the young women of his village, so he set out for a village of Chickasaws, where he saw the girl of his dreams. The girl was evidently no more pleased by Chief Reelfoot than any of the available women of his own village had been. So he went home and plotted to kidnap her. Overhearing this plan, the Great Spirit told Reelfoot that such an act was not appropriate, and were he to carry it out, there would be hell to pay. Overwhelmed by desire, however, Reelfoot descended on the village, snatched up the beautiful maiden, and hauled her back toward his village, no doubt kicking and screaming. Not given to empty threats, the Great Spirit set the land to heaving and buckling, and beneath Reelfoot's feet it sank and filled with water, creating the lake named for him. To this day, it is averred, his remains and those of his inamorata reside in the mud of the lake bottom among the dead cypresses. That this explanatory tale may have arisen sometime after 1812 is suggested by the fact that it was in February of that year that the last of three rapid-fire great earthquakes devastated thousands of square miles of the regional landscape, heaving it around as if, in truth, the Great Spirit was annoyed. In the process, the trio of quakes created some ten new lakes, of which one was Reelfoot. These earthquakes were, in combination and in fact, the Big One. They were the most widely felt quakes ever known. They occurred in a place where, as one geologist has said, there is no reason to have an earthquake. And they remain an enigma. This book is an effort to describe these terrible upheavals and, by way of looking at the history and progress of the earthquake sciences worldwide, to explain what we know about the nature and causes of earthquakes in general and, in particular, the oddball assault on New Madrid, the little river town in Missouri that, however willingly or unwillingly, lent its name to these events. It is a story, of course, that just might have to be told again when Mother Earth or the Great Spirit or whatever forces are at work underneath this seemingly placid region have another grand mal seizure.Copyright 2004 by Jake Page and Charles Officer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Excerpted from The Big One: The Earthquake that Rocked Early America and Helped Create a Science by Charles Officer, Jake Page All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Reelfoot's Follyp. ix
Part 1 The New Madrid Quakes
1. The World Gone Madp. 3
2. Dreams, Omens, and Warp. 24
3. Pendulums and Polymathsp. 40
Part 2 The Earthquake Hunters
4. Myths, Maps, and Machinesp. 61
5. Finding Faultsp. 83
6. Intensity, Magnitude, and Starsp. 97
7. Geophysical Leaps Forwardp. 110
Part 3 Looking Back, Looking Forward
8. Rifts, Plumes, and Reservoirsp. 137
9. The Art of Predictionp. 152
10. False Prophetsp. 176
11. New Madrid Reduxp. 202
Notesp. 217
Indexp. 225