By Elaine Marie Cooper
When growing up in Massachusetts, I had never experienced an earthquake. When my dad’s job sent us to California, these trembles of the earth were the norm and I expected them—although hated the experiences when they occurred. Without warning, the ground beneath you suddenly loses its steadfast stability. The unexpected nature of these events was unnerving, to say the least.
Imagine my surprise to discover there have been several recorded instances of earthquakes in and around New England where I’d grown up, earthquake-ignorant. One of the more significant ones occurred in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1727, although ripples of ground shaking were felt in several other northern colonies as well.
According to Sidney Perley in his classic 1891 edition of Historic Storms of New England, the weather in the northeastern colonies that year defied any sense of normalcy.
A drought occurred in 1727 that began with little rain in the spring, followed by almost no precipitation all summer. “The earth dried to a great depth, and many wells and springs, which had never failed before were now dry. There was much lightning and thunder, but very little rain.”
Perley wrote, “After the drought was broken, a violent northeast storm came on, doing much damage among the vessels along the coast, and the trees on shore. This occurred September 16.”
October weather continued to be at odds with the norm. The weather grew very cold on October 24, followed by a snowfall, then more cold weather. Then Sunday the 28thwas “fair and pleasant.” Everything seemed calm and the colonists went to bed at their usual hour. All seemed well, until twenty minutes before the hour of eleven, when “a terrible noise followed by a roar and a rush suddenly woke them.”
Before the sleepy inhabitants had their wits about them, Perley described an unimaginable sound: “a pounce as if gigantic cannons had rolled against each other from opposite directions.”
Door latches pushed upward and the portals opened wide. Homes trembled and hearthstones grated, while chimney tops loosened and fell, some destroyed altogether. Everything movable rattled and fell.
Frightened citizens ran out their doors, fearing for their lives. People who had already been awake prior to the earthquake claimed a flash of light had preceded the event. Dogs were heard barking at the blazing illumination. These late-to-bed residents told of a murmuring sound that grew to a rumbling “as if innumerable heavy carriages were being rapidly driven over pavements … a hollow sound as if it came from under the earth.”
Then came the sudden and shocking occurrence that awoke the colonists far and wide. It lasted for about two minutes. “The earth reel’d and trembled to a great degree. The houses rock’d and crackl’d as if they were tumbling into ruins.” (Weekly News-Letter, November 3, 1727)
“Cattle ran bellowing about the fields, being thoroughly frightened at this sudden and fearful commotion in the still hours of the night,” wrote Perley.
An aftershock occurred at 11:00 pm. Although milder than the first tremble, it kept everyone in a state of fear. When another occurred before midnight, most residents got dressed and prepared to remain on alert for the duration of the terrifying night.
In several towns like Londonderry, New Hampshire and Rowley, Massachusetts, residents ran to the homes of their ministers for comfort. The reverend in Rowley, whose home could not hold all of the congregants, opened the meetinghouse where they all prayed through the night.
More aftershocks continued through the night. When morning dawned, the damage could be assessed. Although dishes were shattered and some chimneys required rebuilding, “Not a wooden house was broken nor a person or animal injured.”
The earthquake of 1727 did have a significant impact on the terrain and on the underground springs and wells, however. The ground beneath some marshland was raised up so much as to become unfit for its native grasses, but useable for farming. Well water was often changed for the better but one well took seven days to become sweet and pure after the trembling of the earth had caused the underground liquid to have an offensive stench.
In Newbury, Massachusetts, large fissures opened up in the ground and some feared the earth would swallow them up.
The real impact of the earthquake was in the minds and spirits of the citizenry of New England. Many believed it was divine judgement for their sins and clergy preached that it was “a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God.”
In a sermon to his congregation in Hampton, N.H., Reverend Nathaniel Gookin said, “All of us saw necessity of looking to God for his favor and protection; and I would hope that many did, not only look to God in that time of their distress, but did truly and heartily return to him.”
Reverend Cotton Mather wrote an “Awakening” speech, and delivered it to the inhabitants of Boston, “…who assembled the next morning in a very great congregation for the proper exercise of religion on such a Solemn Occasion.” (From an ad for a copy of the pamphlet, “sold by Samuel Kneeland at his shop in King St.”) Reverend Mather wrote, “Let the natural causes of earthquake be what the wise men of enquiry please, they and their causes are still under the government of Him that is God of nature.”
Town leaders in Medford, Massachusetts declared a day of fasting and prayer and churches throughout New England were filled, some beyond capacity.
“Many who had before cared nothing for a religious life became penitent and devout.” Some became truly reformed. “But in too many cases, when their fears were gone, the religious thoughts and habits of the people lost their hold on them.” (Perley)
More aftershocks continued in the northeast through December and, up until that time, was the severest known earthquake in New England.
Next time I visit my home state, I’ll be a tad more aware of rumbles and trembles and I’ll pray that the next Great Earthquake does not find me in a Boston subway. J
To view the New England Seismic Network from Weston Observatory at Boston College, click here
Elaine Marie Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her latest release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She penned the three-book Deer Run Saga and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. She freely admits to being a history geek. Look for her upcoming series, entitled Dawn of America, set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. The first two books are entitled War's Respite and Love's Kindling. You can visit her site at www.elainemariecooper.com