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Willoughby: Seismic sensitivities in 1886

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Tradd Street after the 1886 Charleston earthquake.
USGS Photo Library

Did you feel that shaking last night?  Californians think there is an earthquake season, and most all who have lived there for a few years have seismic sensitivity. Tremors are commonplace. Ones you can feel are too. People in Aspen in September of 1886 had seismic sensitivity, as well — and for a good reason.

Earthquakes were a common news item in The Aspen Times. A report in June 1886 of shaking in Ashbury Park, New Jersey, caught their eyes. In July, it was an earthquake near Madrid, Spain. And, in early August, there was a quake near Rome where “people were panic stricken,” and another in Greece that killed 300 people.

Then, on Aug. 31, there were earthquakes reported in Louisville, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, New York, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., St Louis, Columbus, Ohio and Nashville.



In the same reporting Charleston, South Carolina, was mentioned, noting the quake lasted three minutes. It wasn’t until Sept. 2 that Aspen read the details.

Several major articles over the next few days detailed what was the worst earthquake in the eastern half of the nation: “Businesses destroyed.” “Most people living in tents on the streets.” “Hardly a house in the city escaped injury.” “Estimated three-fourths of city will have to be rebuilt.”




We know, looking back, there were 60 deaths, the quake magnitude likely 6.9 to 7.3, lasting 45 seconds, and damaging 2,000 buildings.

As you can imagine, with Times readers thinking about earthquakes under the headline, “Earthquake in Aspen,” the paper on the 2nd  reported: “A great many people in Aspen heard last evening what they were sure was a shock of earthquake.”

Having just read of the terrible destruction in Charleston, they naturally “took to the street to avoid falling timbers.” It turned out the “shock” was caused by, “heavy wagons rolling up to the O.K. Clothing House on Mill Street.” The Times turned it into an ad for the store.

According to tracking done by Volcano Discovery, Aspen had six earthquakes in 2021. Three were below 2.0 and would not be felt, and three above that you could feel. The strongest registered 2.8. Compare that to our sister resort Mammoth Lakes located in an active zone that in the past year had four quakes below 2.0 and six above with the highest at 3.9. There have been times when there were that many there in a week.

In 1886, science was still deciphering the causes of earthquakes. But, movement along faults was a prime suspect. Aspen miners knew faults intimately since mineral deposits are also directly associated with faults. Mine tunnels followed faults, and shafts descended close to vertical faults. You didn’t need to be a geologist to understand what was going on far below the surface: movement along the faults.

Miners knew because mine car tracks in tunnels had to be adjusted regularly where they crossed faults. The floor of a tunnel had to be leveled because one fault block was moving up or down compared to its neighbor, causing a bump in the tunnel floor.

Tradd Street, Charleston, after the 1886 earthquake. (J.K. Hillers, public domain)
Charleston_SC_Earthquake_1886_1

The good news, not known then, was that constant movement relives the tension between moving large blocks. Big quakes, like those along the San Andreas fault in California, happen when the blocks get stuck and instead of moving a few centimeters a week, the tension builds up and an instantaneous large movement takes place. That massive movement is so powerful it is felt or recorded on our seismic recorders hundreds of miles away.

The Charleston earthquake reporting continued almost daily for three months. After that, earthquakes from around the world continued to fill Times column space. As you likely already know, the next one that jolted Aspen’s seismic sensitivities was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

If your neighbor asked if you felt the shock last night, don’t snicker. You might have missed one.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net

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