A Brief History of Earthquakes in Virginia

We will long remember the rare and startling event that opened the fall semester at the University of Virginia this year. The August 23 earthquake, with a magnitude of 5.8, was centered near Mineral, VA, about 30 miles from Charlottesville. The jolts to the University grounds and surrounding area seemed endless as the quake’s effects were felt up and down the east coast, from northern New England to the Deep South. The hardest-hit areas in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC experienced very strong tremors (rated about VII on the Modified Mercalli scale) that toppled chimneys, broke china, and compromised the structure of national landmarks, including the Washington Monument (closed indefinitely) and the National Cathedral.

Although earthquakes of this magnitude are unusual in Virginia, the geological history of the region is more robust than many residents would have guessed. According to a graphic from the Washington Post, Virginia experiences frequent quakes that are too small to make the news: “An earthquake has been measured in or near Virginia in most months since 1980,” the Post reports. Digging even deeper into Virginia’s geological history, an article from the USGS documents a quake that rocked central Virginia in 1774 (MM intensity VII). Charlottesville had a small, localized tremor of its own on December 26, 1929, when a few bricks were shaken from chimneys (MM IV). The largest earthquake centered in Virginia in modern times was the Giles County (near Blacksburg) earthquake of May 31, 1897. The magnitude of that quake has been estimated at 5.9 (with an intensity of MM VIII), although its effects were not quite as widespread as the recent quake; tremors were reported from Georgia to Pennsylvania and westward to Indiana and Kentucky.

The southeastern region has also been shaken by major quakes originating outside of Virginia. One of the biggest was the Charleston earthquake of 1886. This quake killed more than 60 people, damaged about 2000 buildings, and was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans (MM X). It damaged buildings in southern Virginian and shook up the city of Lynchburg, where William Minor Lile, who would later join the Virginia Law faculty for four decades, was getting a toehold in the legal profession. Here is an account of the quake from his personal diary, now in the University of Virginia Law Library’s Special Collections:

September 5, 1886

On the night of August 31, just a week ago, I was sitting in the office writing a letter to mother when I felt the building tremble. I stopped, looked up and around, and the whole building seemed to be quivering. I immediately comprehended the situation, and with lights burning and doors open, I sought the street, going down the steps three at a time. When I got to the street people were pouring out of the houses on all sides. It was a genuine earthquake. The press reports that Charleston, South Carolina is almost a total wreck. Every large building in the city is said to have been ruined. The people are camping out in the parks and fields. The damage done in Lynchburg was slight, and outside of Charleston I have heard of no serious damage anywhere.

We’re hopeful that the rest of the 2011-2012 school year will be academically stimulating–and geologically quiet.

– Kristin Jensen

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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