For our first American Queen cruise stop, we pulled into New Madrid, Missouri. The river town’s name is tied forever to tragedy. New Madrid was at the epicenter of a seismic shift 200 years ago so violent that the Mississippi appeared to run upstream.
Getting on the American Queen’s Hop On-Hop Off steamcoach, we were able to visit about a half dozen local attractions, free of charge – a nice perk for being an American Queen passenger. The Queen had already paid our admission fees.To learn more about earthquakes, the New Madrid Historical Museum is a great place to start. Be sure to walk across the street and get your picture taken at the New Madrid Fault Line. As the woman who took my photo there said, “What are the chances that we will ever be back in New Madrid?”
Founded in 1788, the town was just an outpost when more than 1,000 earthquakes struck the region during the winter of 1811-1812. The strongest quake measured 8.0 on the Richter Scale and reportedly rang church bells as far away as Boston and Toronto.
The earthquake is still the most powerful ever to strike the United States outside of the West Coast.
The first Mississippi River steamboat, the New Orleans, just happened to be in the area during her maiden voyage from Pittsburgh to her namesake city. Passengers onboard reported a strange roar, boiling white waters, geysers of mud shooting out of fields, collapsing riverbanks and entire trees floating down the river.
The ground shifted so violently that portions of the Mississippi River itself near New Madrid actually flowed north briefly as the slabs of earth gyrated and settled.
The earthquake that struck on Feb. 7, 1812, not only completely destroyed New Madrid, it also badly damaged houses and collapsed chimneys as far away as St. Louis. In Kentucky Bend, a phenomenon known as uplift created temporary waterfalls. Blocked streams backed up and eventually created Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee.
Some good did come from the earthquakes, however. Blocked streams backed up and eventually created the fishing paradise of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee.
The quake also helped solved a local crime. Lilburn and Isham Lewis murdered a man named George Lewis on Dec. 15, 1811. The two murderers hid the body in a chimney.
Without a body, there could be no charges. Six weeks later, the tremors caused the chimney to crumble, revealing the gruesome evidence.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch