Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shake Rattle and Roll

For those who are following, bear with me. I'm still working out the teething issues with this stuff...especially the graphics.

Anyway, back to the story at hand...New Madrid. The quake was powerful enough to ring church bells in Virginia, and crack a brick building in Charleston. It was even reported in newspapers as being felt as far away as Quebec and Montreal.

But how did all this affect us here in the Cumberland River valley? Here's an article from the Nashville Clarion, December 17, 1811, describing the first tremble:

"An alarming earthquake was felt in this town and the adjoining county as far as we have heard, about 15 m. past two o'clock yesterday morning. The shocks, which continued until after day, were some of them very severe -- so much so that the heaviest houses seemed to be racked to pieces; however, we have heard of no real injury sustained, except the fall of some chimneys in the county."

How far were the effects felt? In a piece of breaking news reporting (pretty snazzy for 1812), the editor of the Clarion, Mr. Bradford, reports. (Note the lack of synchronization in the clocks involved):
"At Richmond, (Virg.) it was felt very distinctly. Between the hours of 3 and 4, and about 8 - no mention of injury.
At Norfolk, Virginia, very sensibly perceived -- and about the same time as at Richmond -- shook the goods off the counters, &c.
At Alexandria (Virginia) between 2 and 3 o'clock one shock was felt and another about 8, and continued about 30 seconds. It shook the furniture in the house and stopped some clocks.
At Baltimore, about 3 and 8 o'clock a shock was experienced, and the undulations continued for 40 minutes. Not sufficient to damage any thing.
At Lexington (Kentucky) about half past 2 it was felt and lasted 2 minutes. A little after 3 it was again felt, and between 7 and 8 there were two more shocks.
At Knoxville, it was much the same as here.
At Carthage, about 3 o'clock the shock was felt. They continued for 4 hours - the tops of chimneys shaken off."
So what caused it all? Well, depends on who you talk to. The loquacious Mr. Bradford hypothesized:
"We rather incline to suppose it how ever to be an eruption of the volcano to the west, mentioned by Lewis & Clark."
Well, you can't blame him for inclining to suppose. The uninspired might describe it today as a simple shift of tectonic plates beneath the earth. But there were many who considered it to be a divine revelation. Among them was a Shawnee leader who was at that time engaged in some intricate negotiations. In the fall of 1811, he had come from Ohio to make an alliance with the Muskogee people in what would one day be Alabama, but they were reluctant to fully commit to his cause and risk an all out war with the settlers to their north. Frustrated, he broke off the council and went home empty handed. But legend has it that before he left, he threatened to stamp his foot, and cause all the buildings in the Muskogee town to fall to the ground.

It was either prophecy or an incredibly lucky call, but either way, his supporters among the Muskogee formed a coalition called the Red Sticks and joined his cause.

The Shawnee leader was called Tecumseh. We will meet him again.

Next time, a change of pace.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On...

December 16, 1811:

These things never happen when it's convenient.

At about 2:00 on a quiet, cold winter morning, one hundred and ninety-eight years ago, the biggest natural disaster to ever strike this region came rumbling out of northern Arkansas.

By the time all was said and done, at least four major earthquakes and hundreds of massive aftershocks had rocked the region, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage (read that as "millions" in today's money), rattling buildings, frightening livestock, permanently altering the landscape, killing at least eight people, and scaring the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of at least three quarters of the then-population of the U.S. and Upper Canada. The disaster would take its name from a tiny outpost near the epicenter:

New Madrid.

Even today, the memory of The Big One still hangs out at the back of the minds of many folks in this area like a dreaded visit from a particularly vile relative. According to scientists, we're overdue for another shaking. So, what exactly are we looking at?

Well, here's what an eyewitness wrote on December 19, 1811 about quake number one:
"On Monday morning about one o'clock, the inhabitants of this place were roused from their peaceful slumbers by a dreadful sound...louder, than if 100 waggons [sic] were driven full speed down the mountain...the timid took to prayer, expecting every moment (as they say) to hear the sound of the last trumpet...A sudden trembling of the earth caused fresh terror and alarm...when we felt a violent shock, which lasted about three minutes, and was attended with a hollow rumbling noise, and ended with a dreadful crash..."

"While some of us were in the street, congratulating each other on our happy escape, we were again alarmed by a much louder noise than any we had heard before; it was quickly followed by a more violent shock, which gave the earth an undulating motion resembling the waves of the Sea; two of those who were standing with me were thrown off their feet, the rest of us with difficulty kept from falling."

"The fulminating of the mountains was accompanied with flashes of fire seen from their sides; each flash ended with a snap, or crack, like that which is heard on discharging an electrick [sic] battery, but 1000 times as loud."

So sayeth Mr. John C. Edwards, and all is well and good. But it's interesting to realize that Mr. Edwards was writing from Asheville, North Carolina - roughly five hundred miles from the epicenter.

Sobering thought, isn't it?

Next time, a bit more on the shakeup.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Flood Report

Found this while I was out and about today. The image to the right is of a section of the old Overton-Thompson boundary wall on South Curtiswood Drive, toppled over by the force of the water on Sunday. This section of fence was used as part of the Confederate defense line during the Battle of Nashville in 1864.
This being a site dealing with local history, it might not be a bad idea to post the following updates as to the status of some historic sites and buildings. (Please note that all information given here is unofficial, based on phone conversations with the various sites. For official word, please contact the various sites' websites or phone numbers for more info.)

  • Belle Meade Plantation had its front entrance damaged, and ended up with an incredible four feet of water in the cellar. But all artifacts were moved to safety, and it appears that there was little appreciable damage. As of today they were open for business as usual.
  • Fort Nashborough missed it by inches...literally. The flood waters on First Avenue crept to within a short distance of the fort, but judging by the aerial shots on the news coverage, it appears that it managed to stay above the stream. No official word on damage yet.
  • The Hermitage was closed today and yesterday due to the "inclement weather." No word of any damage.
  • Travellers Rest Plantation had a miraculous escape...even the normal leaks didn't seem to leak. Little appreciable damage, and as of yesterday they were open for business as usual.
  • Mansker's Station remained closed today in Goodlettsville, due to flooding in Moss Wright Park. No word yet on any damage.
  • Rather alarmingly, Rock Castle in Hendersonville backs up to the banks of Old Hickory Lake. There has been no word yet on any damage suffered.
  • The Franklin Historic District was, in places, submerged under several feet of water. Some damage can probably be expected in areas near the river.
If anyone has any further additions (or corrections) to the above list, please feel free to leave a comment. (Any information about Rock Castle is especially appreciated.)

How High's the Water, Mama?

It's funny how people who deal with history on a daily basis never seem to expect to witness it.
The May Day flood of 2010 has had an incredible impact on people and businesses around the area. The human cost has been awful, and the economic and social cost will not be apparent for years to come. My thoughts and prayers are with all those who have suffered and lost in this terrible tragedy.

The Cumberland, Harpeth, and Duck Rivers can be mean and nasty when they want to be. Nashville has seen many floods in its history, and hard as it is to believe, what just happened is not even the worst in the city's history. Just take a look at the two fellows to the right, who are taking a lovely gondola ride down Second Avenue in 1926. (A special shout out to the lovely Miranda. Thanks for the image.) On that occasion, the Cumberland crested at 56 feet.

Over at the website of the Tennessee State Library and Archive can be seen a series of chillingly familiar pictures showing the great deluge of 1950:

Again, not the type of history anyone wants to be part of, but one that - thankfully - none of us are likely to see again within our lifetimes.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Welcome to Fires in the Forest, a blog dedicated to the early history of Middle Tennessee. This will be an ongoing effort (although a sporadic one) to bring to life events and people long forgotten, from the founding of the first settlements, through the Civil War and beyond. Follow along, and you'll meet some fascinating characters.

Some are heroes, barely remembered...

...while others are not remembered at all.

Some of them were dreamers and visionaries...

...and others were the stuff of nightmares.

You'll also find out what sort of things happened right beneath the streets and buildings in which you work, shop, or play today.

So come in, pull up a stump, and take a seat by the fire. It should be an interesting journey.

More to come soon.