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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

Dec 3, 2021

Earthquakes are frightening events even in the present day, but imagine what they were like before modern communications. When the first earthquake of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 hit, panic and confusion reigned. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes in North American recorded history, but it took months back then for regional towns to know the scope of the devastation. Just press play to hear the whole story. ------

Click on search links to explore episodes with related content: Adam Kloppe, Natural Disaster, Disaster, Rural, Mississippi River, ------


Podcast Transcript: I’m Adam Kloppe, public historian with the Missouri Historical Society, and Here’s History on eighty-eight one, KDHX.Today, if one part of the world experiences a natural disaster, the rest of the world hears about it within seconds. Thanks to modern technology, we all know about it when disaster strikes, and we all have plans for what to do to seek shelter or offer to help. ------

But what if you lived through a disaster, but you weren’t really sure what disaster you lived through, or how affected anyone else nearby may have been? This is exactly what happened to the city of St. Louis on December 16, 1811. ------

At a little after 2 in the morning, the ground in St. Louis began shaking—violently. Church bells rang throughout the village. Chimneys cracked. Animals howled and bellowed. Some people were even shaken out of their beds! Within minutes, many of the 2000 residents of St. Louis had fled their homes and run into the streets. Local newspaper editor Joseph Charless reported that the folks who went outside were greeted by a thick, hazy fog. ------

The residents of St. Louis had just experienced the first major earthquake of what is known today as the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. Over the next two months or so, St. Louis, and the entire region around it, would be struck by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks. And it wasn’t just St. Louis that experienced these earthquakes—shaking ground was felt as far away as Cincinnati, and there were some reports that the tremors caused church bells to ring on the east coast. ------

While St. Louisans knew they had lived through an earthquake, it took months for word to reach the city about the damage that had been done elsewhere. As travelers and letters trickled into the city over the next several weeks, residents heard reports of homes being flattened in Cape Girardeau and of the Mississippi river running backwards in some places. They heard stories about the ground moving as if it was made of liquid and of entire riverbanks collapsing. ------

They also received word that the entire town of New Madrid, Missouri, about 160 miles south of St. Louis, had been destroyed by the earthquakes. New Madrid sat right at the epicenter of the earthquake. ------

Today, evidence suggests the 1811 earthquake was one of the largest in North American history—larger than even the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The New Madrid fault is still active, and experts have no idea if or when it may cause the earth around St. Louis to start shaking again. ------

Here’s History is a joint production of KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. I’m Adam Kloppe, and this is eighty-eight one, KDHX, St. Louis.