When the water shook out of the zanjas: the earthquake of 1857

November 13, 2008 § 4 Comments

 (and are you prepared for the next Big One?)

Photo from waterencyclopedia.com

San Andreas fault. Photo from waterencyclopedia.com

I could wax poetic about the relationship between our earthquake faults and seeps and springs, and all the beautiful and interesting life that is birthed out of this impersonal geologic chaos.  But first, right now, maybe I just want to scare you a little.  Not a lot, just enough to mobilize you so that you have a stash of water and food somewhere secure, an exit strategy in a crisis, you know, all the good stuff we’re always told to do but never do. 

Environmental writer Judith Lewis recently wrote an excellent piece, The Coming Quake, in the High Country News about the expectations & implications of a major earthquake in So Cal.  And today is the Great Shake Out, a day of earthquake preparedness. I’m not one to jump on bandwagons readily, but do take some time out to prepare.

Consider the earthquake of 1857, located north of Fort Tejon, estimated to be an 8 on the Richter scale, before the land was broadly settled.  Here are a couple of accounts from James P. Reagan’s oral histories:

Mr John Guess, Savannah:  Says he was milking a cow and another man close by was doing the same thing and another man was unharnessing a team of mules, and he heard a roar but thought it was the wind in the willows and did not pay attention to it, but in a moment himself, the other two men and all the stock were on the ground – – not a one left on their feet. There was a stream some six or eight feet wide and a foot to a foot and half deep right close to where they were and the water was all shaken out…no water ran in it for quite a while…

Mr. S. D. Thurman, El Monte: Mr Thurman told about the earthquake of 1857. He was in El Monte at the time and it shook all the plaster off the houses…and shook down big trees. He had been up by Elizabeth Lake before the quake and it was dry and since the quake it has always had water in it.

If you dig first person accounts, download this Report of the Great California Earthquake of 1857.  Here’s an excerpt, from El Clamor Público, the Spanish-language newpaper of Los Angeles(accents as shown in the source document):

Se han visto fenòmenos bastantes curiosos: se salió el agua de las sanjas, y los pájaros se juntaron y chillando seguian el movimiento de la tierra, impelidos por alguna fuerza invisible. (Very strange phenomena were seen: water sloshed out of the zanja and flocks of birds, screeching loudly, followed the motion of the earth as if impelled by an invisible force)

As the Southern California Earthquake Data Center summarizes it,

As a result of the shaking, the current of the Kern River was turned upstream, and water ran four feet deep over its banks. The waters of Tulare Lake were thrown upon its shores, stranding fish miles from the original lake bed. The waters of the Mokelumne River were thrown upon its banks, reportedly leaving the bed dry in places. The Los Angeles River was reportedly flung out of its bed, too. Cracks appeared in the ground near San Bernadino and in the San Gabriel Valley. Some of the artesian wells in Santa Clara Valley ceased to flow, and others increased in output. New springs were formed near Santa Barbara and San Fernando. Ridges (moletracks) several meters wide and over a meter high were formed in several places.

Scary but so cool!  Poetry in geologic motion!  So, to end on a humorous note, this, from the Los Angeles Star, January 17, 1857, reprinted in a Caltech News Release from California Geology, February 1979, Vol 32, No 2:

“…Another (gentleman), enjoying the luxury of a bath, stood the rocking for some time, but at last was compelled to evacuate the premises, and rush to the yard, where to his horror a number of ladies had also sought refuge and were seeking consolation in prayer. Whether from the shock to his feelings, or the shock of the earthquake, he was immediately brought prone to the earth, when he managed to creep under cover, unobserved. . . .”

You don’t want to get caught like our bathing gentleman. Get prepared.  As we all know, in Southern California, it’s a question of when, not if.


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§ 4 Responses to When the water shook out of the zanjas: the earthquake of 1857

  • mel says:

    For a vivid eye-opener on what might happen to SoCal’s water supply in the event the big one hits NorCal, read the last 15 pages of Marc Reisner’s posthumously published ‘A Dangerous Place.’ (for full effect, read the last 75 pages) You’ll never be able to get it out of your head.

  • jishica says:

    Thanks Mel. I’m sure it’s chilling…after all, there’s a lot of dams on big rivers up there, and an increasing amount of floodplain development.

  • Danny says:

    Yes, that’s my biggest fear, that the earthquake will come when I’m less than suitably dressed… in the shower, or possibly even in bed, and won’t have time to grab something decent before I end up outside.

    I’m only half-joking, btw. I really do think about this. 🙂

  • taylor says:

    If a major earthquake disrupts (or contaminates) the los angeles water supply i will take it as a sign to move somewhere with mo cleaner water and less people . . . ..

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