Earthquakes and Historic Alexandria

The August 23, 2011 earthquake was quite a surprise, causing damage to homes and historic properties in Alexandria and Washington, DC. A little research shows that five sizable earthquakes affected Alexandria in the 2011.

Page archived as of March 3, 2020


Gadsby's Earthquake Damage 2011
Earthquake damage to chimney of the 1792 City Hotel, part of Gadsby's Tavern Museum.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, occurred at 1:51 p.m. on Tuesday, August 23, 2011. The epicenter was in Mineral Virginia, 39 miles northwest of Richmond and 87 miles from Alexandria. The tremors were felt very strongly throughout the Washington, D.C. Area. The earthquake caused some damage Gadsby's Tavern, most significantly to the chimneys on the 1792 City Tavern. The historic Alexandria City Hall also sustained some damaged brickwork. A few fallen chimneys could be seen in Old Town, and chimneys on many more older homes were cracked and leaning.  

This unusual event brought to mind early newspaper accounts of Alexandria's experience in the New Madrid earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, and the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake of 1886. The Giles County, Virginia earthquake of May 31, 1897 (magnitude 5.9) was also no doubt felt strongly here in Alexandria, 290 miles from the epicenter. Note that the 1811 account in the Alexandria Herald saw some humor in the reaction of the residents, who no doubt ran out into the street as did many Alexandrians in 2011.

New Madrid, December 16, 1811

Epicenter, New Madrid, Missouri, December 16, 1811. Magnitude 7.7 (USGS estimate)

On Monday morning last two shocks of an earthquake were sensibly felt in this town, the first between 2 and 3 o’clock, the latter about 8. We do not find it was attended with any peculiar circumstance of portention or effect; but being a circumstance of that rare kind with us; it excited as much curiosity in the inquisitive and wonder in the credulous, as did the stranger's nose in Strasbourg; so satirically related by Sterne. There appeared to be but one shock each time, and its undulations might have continued nearly 30 seconds. It had force enough to shake the furniture in houses and move doors upon their hinges, and we have heard some instances of clocks being stopped by its throwing their pendulums out of their regular course of vibration.

Alexandria Herald, December 18, 1811

Note, “The stranger's nose in Strasbourg” refers to a passage in Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, printed in 1761. In this popular story of the day, interest in the stranger's long nose draws the people of Strasbourg out of their homes, which are then conquered by the French.

New Madrid, January 23, 1812

Epicenter, New Madrid, Missouri, January 23, 1812. Magnitude 7.5 (USGS estimate)

A shock of an earthquake was distinctly felt in this town yesterday morning, about 20 minutes after nine o’clock. Its duration was supposed to be about thirty seconds, and its motion from N.W. to S.E. Considerable sensations were excited by this event.

Concord Gazette, Feb. 4, 1812

New Madrid, February 7, 1812

Epicenter, New Madrid, Missouri, February 7, 1812. Magnitude 7.7 (USGS estimate)

There was another shock of an Earthquake felt at this place, at about 4 o’clock yesterday morning - its motion was about north-to-south - a gentle undulation, about the same in degree with that felt the 23d ult.

Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Feb. 12, 1812

Charleston, August 31, 1886

Epicenter, Charleston, South Carolina, August 31, 1886. Magnitude 7.3

“...The vibrations were from southwest to northeast, … awakening many who were asleep, and causing general alarm and consternation. The severest shock caused houses to rock, furniture to visible move, pictures pendant on the walls to swing, ornaments on mantels, shelves to topple, clocks to stop and people to experience a feeling of nausea. In some instances men, women and children rushed from their houses in their night clothes, and in a few moments the streets were alive with persons eagerly discussing the unusual phenomenon. The chandeliers in some houses swung so as to describe an arc of six or eight inches, while chairs on rockers tilted in a direction opposite that of the direction motion, lamp chimneys shook violently and the oil in the bowls tossed about as water when shaken; the bell of the town clock struck once; a lady sitting in front of her door on Pitt Street fainted from fear and nausea, while a gentleman who tried to assist her could scarcely keep his feet on account of the vibration. The shocks were from ten to forty seconds in duration...Some failed to realize what was going on until the danger was over.

Alexandria Gazette, August 31, 1886, excerpted in The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 1998, Vol. VII, No. 2.

Read more about the Charleston earthquake in The Day that Shook Alexandria, Out of the Attic, The Alexandria Times, September 27, 2018.

Giles County, VA, May 31, 1897

Epicenter, Giles County, Virginia, May 31, 1897. Magnitude 5.9

Alexandria News

Washington Post Bureau, 621 King Street, Alexandria, Va., May 31.
An earthquake shock was felt in this city this afternoon shortly after 2 o'clock.

The Washington Post, June 1, 1897

Mineral, VA, August 23, 2011

Epicenter, Mineral, Virginia, August 23, 2011. Magnitude 5.8

All Shook Up

Alexandria was shaken by an earthquake that measured 5.9 degrees on the Richter scale on Tuesday, Aug. 23. People flooded onto city streets when the tremors struck, looking around in disbelief....

Alexandria Gazette, August 25, 2011, "All Shook Up," by Adam Basile

Earthquake Damages Historic Alexandria Tavern

One of the most historic buildings in Old Town Alexandria has been damaged by Tuesday's earthquake and the extent of the damage is still being assessed.

The intersection of Cameron and Royal streets has been closed to traffic in the heart of Old Town Alexandria. A large chain link fence is keeping people away from Gadsby's Tavern -- a building from the 1790s where Thomas Jefferson celebrated his inaugural banquet. When the earthquake rocked the tavern on Tuesday, two chimneys on the side of the building were cracked.

"We don't know how long the block will be closed off," says Amy Bertsch, the spokeswoman for the Office of Historic Alexandria....Bertsch says the extent of the damage is still unknown, and a contractor has been hired to figure out what is needed to fix the 18th-century building...., August 26, 2011, "Earthquake Damages Historic Alexandria Tavern," by Michael Pope.