New York has never suffered severely from the effects of an earthquake. Most recently, the one felt in 2011— reportedly of 5.8 or 5.9 magnitude, centered around Virginia and affecting many Northeast metropolitan areas — ranks quite high on the list of tremors felt here.
There’s no way to compare that local event to the really early quakes, as the Richter scale was only created in 1935. But quakes have hit the city as early as December 18, 1737, when a guesstimated 5.2 rattled holiday chimneys. But an equally dramatic tremor that hit on Sunday, August 10, 1884, has a few parallels to the recent one which just hit California.
“No Damage Done But Queer Sensations Experienced” reported the New York Tribune the next day. From the Sun: “An Earthquake Shakes Us.” The tremor occurred at 2:07 pm “by the City Hall clock” in a couple separate waves.
Few New Yorkers living in 1884 would have ever experienced an earthquake in an American city. Some ran to their windows expecting to see a runaway horse car. Others standing under the newly built elevated railroad thought the train was arriving.
Those stopped on the street felt something beneath their feet and became starkly confused. Eventually some people left their homes and collected in parks, such as the assemblage the Tribune reports formed outside of City Hall. Today we feel a rumbling and just assume the subway, which wasn’t built yet in 1884 (outside of the short lived pneumatic tube, of course).
There was some damage reported to homes in the Lower East Side, and some residents — being mostly immigrants, perhaps more in tune to the dangers of tremors in their home lands — rushed out into the street with their furniture. A few horse stables shook open and their residents fled into the streets.
Apparently, those in the poshest hotels felt it strongly, or at least announced to reporters that it had rattled them so.
At the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a clerk described, “On the upper floors the guests say that the oscillations were marked” and reported a rattling of the chandeliers. Apparently, an admired set of colored drinking glasses at the Astor House was thrown from its nook and smashed on the floor.
Rumors spread. Some thought the west side gas works on 14th Street had exploded, while others circulated that dynamite had gone off in the Hell Gate. A “mouldy headed orator” in Harlem — near one of New York’s natural fault line at 125th Street — proclaimed that Manhattan was built upon a rock shelf that had been abruptly brushed by a passing whale, the tremors caused by its flapping tail.
The sensation of the tremor seemed to be felt almost at random; for instance, those living along the Hudson reporting it rattling dishes, while tourists atop the newly built Brooklyn Bridge barely felt a thing. Some electrical services were briefly disrupted, as was telegraph service. (That’s a lot of extra dots and dashes, I suppose.)
On First Avenue, a drunken afternoon reveler ran out of a local saloon “and hurrahed for earthquakes and for social revolution.” Uptown at the Hoffman House, a California businessman quietly said to his friend, “Well, if everything in New York wasn’t nailed down I should say that we are having an earthquake.”
According to the New York Sun, an aftershock was felt the following afternoon in Far Rockaway, as well as parts of New Jersey.