The recent earthquake, epicentered two miles west of Hollis Center, measured 4.0 on the Richter Magnitude Scale and lasted a few seconds. Mainers described the earthquake sensation as “a thunderous noise followed by rolling vibrations,” and “like a huge truck was driving through my basement,” and “as if my washing machine was way out of balance.” The tremor of Oct. 16, 2012 rattled nerves and tea cups as far away as Connecticut but it pales in comparison to the earthquakes felt in Maine during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, within the context of the time, descriptions of the earthquake experience remain fairly consistent.
The first major quake in New England, after the English settlers arrived, was on June 2, 1638. Estimated to have been a magnitude 6.5, it was long referred to as “The Great Earthquake.” William Williamson wrote of it in his History of the State of Maine: “It commenced with a noise like continued thunder, or the rattling of stage coaches upon pavements … The sound and motion continued about four minutes, and the earth was unquiet at times, for 20 days afterwards.” Imagine the terror in times of magical thinking.
An earthquake that occurred on Oct. 29, 1727 has been approximated at 5.6 magnitude. Its epicenter was off the coast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts but it shook the east coast from Maine to Delaware. Paul Dudley, attorney-general of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, described it in a contemporary letter to the Royal Society of London: “The noise or sound that accompanied or preceded our earthquake was very terrible and amazing. Some of our people took this noise to be thunder; others compared it to the rattling of coaches and carts upon pavements, or frozen ground.”
Kennebunkport historian Charles Bradbury reports that many chimneys and stone walls were shaken down in Arundel in 1727. He credits the earthquake for inspiring temporary reformation among citizens of Arundel with a large number of them finding religion during the months followed.
An unusual phenomenon called “Earthquake Lights” has only, in the last 50 years, been photographed and documented by the scientific community. Flashes of blue, orange or white light, sometimes having the appearance of flames or explosions, appear in the sky around the time of a moderate to strong earthquake. The cause is unknown but the phenomenon has been reported since ancient times. There were several reports of bright flashes of light seen before and after the 1727 earthquake.
One such account was printed in the New England Weekly Journal. A gentleman from Newington, N.H. saw what he thought was an explosion over the mountains, a great distance to the northwest of his house, shortly after the quake. His vision was affirmed by Indians who had recently traveled from the mountains by canoe down the Saco River. “Several Indians who lately came into Black-Point (Scarborough) told them that a mountain near where they were at the time of the earthquake was partly blown up with fire, and burnt at so prodigious a rate that it was amazing to behold it; Upon this they all removed their quarters as soon as they could; but yet have since, and very lately too, seen the flames arise in a very awful and amazing manner. They also say, they thought the great god was angry with them for being so active in the wars, and resolved never more to engage in any war against the English.”
Some Englishmen also believed that earthquakes were a sign of God’s displeasure. The same lighting phenomenon accompanied the 6.0 earthquake of 1755 centered near Cape Ann, Mass. Rev. Thomas Prince, in his essay, “EARTHQUAKES the Works of GOD, and Tokens of His just Displeasure,” seemed to blame the quake on Benjamin Franklin’s new-fangled lighting rods, which had become popular in the city of Boston that year.
Since most of the damage from the earthquake occurred in the brick buildings of Boston and not in the movable timber frames in the country, lightning rods were blamed for trapping excess electricity in the earth. It accumulated there until the earth could hold no more and released the electricity by exploding in an earthquake.
Prince’s point seemed to be that God’s wrath could not be diverted for long through trickery. The consequences of avoiding the occasional lightning strike would end up being far worse in the end as demonstrated by the lightning rod induced earthquake of 1755.
Earthquakes were taken as a sign from God by ministers in southern Maine, as well. The church at Arundel called for a fast by the congregation to atone for their sins. Sermons were delivered on the subject of earthquakes in Maine meetinghouses. Rev. Gideon Richardson of Wells experienced such a shock to his nervous system from the earthquake of 1755 that his death in 1758 was generally believed to be a result of the quake.
Major and minor earthquakes have been fairly common in New England in the whole scheme of things. Many seem to have followed a northwest to southeast tract. Some of the major ones were accompanied by Earthquake Lights. A large percentage of them have been explained away by some form of magical thinking.