Shake, Rattle and Roll: The Last “Big One” in Southern California, The Fort Tejon Earthquake of 9 January 1857

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Earthquake Hazards section of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published a short review three years ago about the Fort Tejon earthquake of 9 January 1857, which it called “The Last ‘Big One’ in Southern California.” The shaker, which took place about 8:20 a.m., rumbled along the San Andreas Fault, which ruptured some 225 miles from Parkfield, in southeastern Monterey County northeast of Paso Robles, to Wrightwood, where Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties meet in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The temblor has been estimated to be 7.9 on the Richter scale and was followed by the expected after-shocks, including large ones the same day and a week later, and its name derives from the fact that the largest amount of reported damage was at the United States Army’s Fort Tejon, established a few years prior in what we call “The Grapevine” between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Given the sparseness of population and development in the region, the effects were not as significant as one might expect, but the notable lesson for us is that, as has been frequently reported, we are due for a “Big One” and there are some concerns that climate change will make a greater contribution to the aftermath of a shaker because of worsening wildfires (caused by ruptures of power lines) and mudslides (the latter related to such weather events as the “atmospheric river” that has inundated California in recent days—more on that in tomorrow’s post on the floods of December 1861-January 1862.)

An 1857 drawing of Los Angeles.

Fifteen years ago, renowned seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones and a team devised a “ShakeOut Scenario” that posited, should existing preventive measures continue, an 8.0 temblor could lead to up to 2,000 deaths, 50,000 injuries and $200 billion in damage. Jones was quoted as suggesting that up to 1,600 wildfires could be started by the large quake, especially if the event happened during a Santa Ana wind condition, while mudslides were more likely if the tremor took place in winter, as was the case in 1857.

Such mudslides would be a consequence of climate change-induced extremes of severe drought alternated with occasional periods of heavy rain and snow, leading one group studying drought to warn that “this creates the need for expanded water storage during drought years and increased risk of flooding and dam failure during periods of extreme precipitation.” The ShakeOut hypothesis is that landslides would cause $1 billion in damage, but fires would lead to $100 billion.

The San Andreas Fault runs through major “lifeline corridors” in our region and the Los Angeles Aqueduct crosses it twice, so the concern for serious impacts to infrastructure and the strains caused by these breaches are also of alarm, especially if these were to take place along a lengthy rupture area such as that in Fort Tejon quake. Another consideration is the degree to which towns and cities, such as in greater Los Angeles, are built on sandy loam soils which increase the risk of significant damage because these would allow for more movement.

Los Angeles Star, 10 January 1857.

The Los Angeles Star, issued weekly on Saturdays, reported, in its edition of 10 January 1857, that

Yesterday morning, about half-past eight o’ clock, a very severe shock of an earthquake was felt here, the vibrations continuing for fully two minutes. The motion was from North to South. During the day as many as four or five shocks were experienced, but all less intense than the first. Several houses were slightly cracked by the first shock, but no material damage was sustained.

The account went on to observe that, with the Los Angeles River, “the water rushed violently to one bank and then back again, the motion being repeated several times,” while at various locations locally, “the earth is represented as having undulated as a field of wheat moved by the wind.” With respect to skittish citizens, the Star added that the temblor “caused a general turn out, some rushing from their beds without stopping to dress.”

Star, 17 January 1857.

In fact, that comment was followed by one that sought to make light of the fears of the denizens of the Angel City, as the paper stated that there were “an infinite variety of incidents” told of the quake, but that these were “such as are likely to take place when people are tolerably well frightened.” Yet, in its next week’s edition, the Star extensively covered many of these incidents, demonstrating that there was greater concern and effect than it initially reported.

The paper explained, in its issue of the 17th, that “at the time of publication, we had no information concerning the effects of the earth’s disturbance elsewhere,” but this lack was remedied by “our friends in the various localities” who submitted their accounts. Further, the Star noted that “the subject is one of peculiar interest,” notwithstanding the many theories as to why the rupture occurred, but “all take a deep interest in the effects produced in different localities, and are anxious to become acquainted with the facts.”

The paper continued that a fuller accounting was not just because of “its vast importance” or that “it has formed almost the exclusive topic of conversation,” but because “it is a matter of historical record.” When it came to the shaking, it was recorded that it was, at first, gentle, but then “increased in violence” so that “every house, with all its contents, were seen to rock from side to side, as if about to topple over. Three separate jolts took place over the two minutes and large aftershocks were said to have taken a half-hour and an hour later, while a 5 p.m. shaker was almost as large as the original quake, with another large shock at 11 p.m. More significant tremors were felt at that latter time on Saturday and Sunday.

As for the immediate reaction, the paper observed that

the fearful cry of “earthquake” issued from every mouth—then a rush, shouting and screaming, such as may well be conceived, but cannot be described. At the hotels, the breakfast tables were instantly deserted; people wildly rushed to the streets, tripping and tumbling over each other in their hurry and dismay.

As noted on the 10th, scared citizens scurried outdoors without heed to their dress and “gave their linen to the breeze,” while some levity was employed as it was reported that one man “mistook his window for a door” and “was seen running along the roof of an adobe building” with the idea that, should the structure collapse, it was better from him to be atop it rather than the reverse. A second gent emerged from his bathtub, au naturel, and ran into the yard “where to his horror a number of ladies had also sought refuge and were seeking consolation in prayer.” Claiming that it was unclear if he did so because of the shock of the quake or to his feelings, the man “managed to creep under cover, unobserved.”

Star, 17 January 1857.

For the paper, there were further evidences of “the most ludicrous scenes” as “men [were] falling down in the streets on their knees, without well knowing why” and the Star theorizing that this was because these folks “suddenly took to prayer in the streets” because of “their fears rather than their habits.” It repeated that, while the river rolled its contents, as did the zanjas (water ditches) in the town of around 4,000 persons, little damage was sustained, but it did add that “elsewhere considerable property has been destroyed” with several injuries and one loss of life.

That fatality was reported as taking place at “Reed’s Ranch” not far from Fort Tejon, where several persons ran out of a house (something always warned about) and “all of whom effected their escape, except a woman, who was killed by the falling of the house” as “the wall struck her head which was smashed” and her body was brought into the city for burial.

Meanwhile, it was reliably reported that an octogenarian, who, strangely, was said to be unknown as to identity and yet “familiar to all our citizens,” was walking through the Plaza towards the church (still with us today) “when he fell down and was taken up a corpse.” Also recorded was that

On a ranch [La Merced] belong to Mr. [F.P.F.] Temple on the San Gabriel River [Río Hondo—the course of the river changing in flooding during the winter of 1867-1868], the earth for a considerable distance was rent asunder, leaving a ditch some three feet wide. The disruption was traced for miles along the river, which was turned out of its bed for many rods in length.

Other notable stories included that a group of affrighted residents, jittery from one of the 11 p.m. aftershocks, decided to spend the night outdoors and lit a large bonfire to stay warm “rather than run the risk of being killed by the falling of the houses,” while a story got around that a man was engulfed by a disruption of the earth “but managed to extricate himself from the loose earth with which he was covered up.”

Star, 17 January 1857.

Another was that a federal coast surveying party “about fifteen miles from the coast, in the district of San Fernando,” likely in the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, came across a stream not previously seen and this was attributed to the action of the quake—a similar story was related from someone at Fort Tejon. A separate statement related to a surveyor in the mountains near San Fernando was that a fissure was revealed through which “a hot gas was fiercely issuing” while nearby locals told the man, named Stanley, that light was seen at night at a different location and this was supposed to be caused “by the ignition of the gas, produced by a favorable action of the surrounding atmosphere.”

At Mission San Fernando, meanwhile, two houses were knocked down, while at San Gabriel, “the shock is represented as having been much more severe than in the city” with several residences “badly damaged,” and the mission church “having been very much cracked.” More damaged dwellings were reported at El Monte and at the ranch of Lemuel Carpenter at Los Nietos (modern Downey—Carpenter soon lost his property to James McFarland and John Downey and committed suicide with the town developed there years later), the house there sustained severe damage, as well.

A report from San Bernardino indicated that damage was relatively minor there, as well, though nerves were as frayed there as in the Angel City. The major destruction at Fort Tejon, as noted above, gave the shaker its moniker and Alonzo Wakeman, the deputy quartermaster for the Army detachment at that post sent in a detailed description of

the most terrific shock imaginable, tearing the Officers’ quarters to pieces, severely damaging the Hospital, and laying flat with the ground the gable ends of nearly all the buildings erected, including the Quartermaster’s store . . . Mr. David Alexander has come into garrison from the vicinity of Santa Amelia and reports that the beds of small streams have been enlarged and now form almost rivers . . .

Alexander was actually at the Rancho San Emigdio, northwest of the fort, where he superintended cattle kept there by his close friends William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, and where Workman’s son, Joseph, was also working at the time.

Star, 17 January 1857.

In a separate article in that day’s edition of the Star, it was asserted that, all fears to the contrary aside, “no great danger need be apprehended from earthquakes in this country” and, strangely, it was added that this included any possibility that such disasters were to “punish or reward the new race [that is, white Americans and Europeans] which now possesses the land.”

After speaking with José Antonio Carrillo, who died in 1862 and who was the great-uncle of the well-known actor Leo Carrillo, it was related that “the first serious earthquake, of which there is any remembrance” was on 8 December 1812 and “its effects were disastrous.” Principally, this involved the “defective architecture” of the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, which was destroyed while Mass was being heard and three dozen lives were lost. At Mission San Buenaventura, the bell tower was so damaged that it had to be taken down.

Moreover, it was stated by Carrillo that there were some 300 quakes felt that year, including one on 21 December that destroyed the Mission La Purisima (later granted to Jonathan Temple) and severely damaged the Mission San Luis Obispo. A notable story regarding this temblor was that an American ship engaged in smuggling at the Rancho Refugio, north of Santa Barbara where a state beach is today, was carried inland by a surge generated by the quake and then returned to its anchorage by the receding waters.

Star, 24 January 1857.

In the 45 years since, however, only one other earthquake of note was recorded, this being in July 1855, when one took place “and shook the houses considerably” but “doing no further damage than cracking the walls of the buildings.” As to the current quake, it was reported from Fort Tejon that, just prior to the shaking, was seen “a mass of rock and earth, which was forced high into the air—this was unaccompanied by smoke or fire” and it was presumed that a gas explosion caused this. Interestingly, nearly a half century before the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the article ended with the statement, “great anxiety is felt by our citizens for the safety of San Francisco” because the line of disturbance was such that it would impact that metropolis.

Meanwhile, the attention of the Star was quickly diverted by another seismic event in greater Los Angeles just two weeks after the earthquake: the ambush and killing of Sheriff James R. Barton (former son-in-law of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland) and his posse searching for bandits in the San Juan Capistrano area. We’ll cover that significant event and following incidents later this month, as well as tomorrow’s post on the catastrophic floods of the winter of 1861-1862.

2 thoughts

  1. Earthquakes and California, today we know the eternal relationship that they share.

    Some big earthquake questions that are seen in the ancient reporting that are not an element of today’s seismic preparations are #1 Why do earthquakes happen and #2 Could they happen again.

    Geologic faults were totally unknown and slippage along those faults would have been inconceivable in the 1800s. The attributions of volcanic activity and movement of gasses to the shaking is not a bad conclusion to draw based on the information that they had.

    But the REALLY BIG question as the settlement of California happened was “Could it happen again?” Settlers coming from areas of blizzards and floods and hurricanes fully understood that these phenomena were seasonal therefore somewhat predictable and should be expected and prepared for. The reporting that asked the oldest residents about historical quake experiences was an interesting attempt to try to answer the questions about frequency and repeatability.

    One population that was not surveyed or reported was the native indians. I have never come across good reports about earthquakes in Native California cultures. To what did they attribute them? Were quakes seen as much of a hazard? Likely not as the native infrastructure would not have been at much risk.
    Were there native stories that marked the timing and intensity of quakes?

    The lack of damage and few deaths reported, would put this 1857 quake into the nuisance category rather than a disaster. But of course California would have more quakes and the damage and death toll would increase as the infrastructure became more complex.

    The next big quake was the Hayward quake of 1868. 6.7 magnitude, but violent shaking and significant damage in the bay area. The biggest tragedy from this event is the resistance/prohibition to the study of earthquakes.

    By 1868 mining interests saw the need to study geology and understand the earth better. The geologists wanted to study quakes (the study of faults would lead to better understanding of ore veins) but the business interests prevented the study of the causes of quakes because their rationale was that if we understood the causes of quakes then it would be proven that they could happen again.
    And the potential of “happening again” is something that the promoters of California did NOT want to share with the world.

    The real downside to this was that it also prevented any study into the causes of building damage and the concept of how best to construct buildings and infrastructure in earthquake country was delayed a hundred years or more. It wasn’t until the 1933 Long beach quake that seismic standards for schools were enacted, and the 1971 Sylmar earthquake that standards were enacted for roads and other buildings.

    To not study history because you want to believe that it wont be repeated, is to deny the ability to prepare for future events that are inevitable. Sadly the promoters who wanted to obscure that earthquakes do happen (repeatedly) in California, ended up costing unnecessary deaths, injuries and destruction.

    Study history, it makes the future better.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for the thoughtful and detailed comment about this important topic and “hear, hear” about the importance of studying history!

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