The Great Shake-Up

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Trees tilted by the New Madrid earthquakes
Trees tilted by the New Madrid earthquakes.  Note the upward curvature of growth.

USGS photo

The slave miners recounted that one day as they worked, the air of the cave suddenly gave a great whoosh – and small fragments of rock fell from the ceiling and walls. They hurried out of the cave in fear, but more fearsome still was the scene outside. Trees had been felled by a great earthquake. The great shocks of 1811-1812 undoubtedly represent the most massive quakes in recorded North American history; though the Richter Scale had not yet been invented, modern scholars put the magnitude of the shocks at around 8.9 on the Richter Scale, among the most powerful of earthquakes. These shocks caused the Mississippi River to flow backward for three days, creating Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee, and ringing church bells on the East Coast.

Scene of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake, with log cabins toppling and frightened people running outdoors
Lithograph of the New Madrid earthquakes – log cabins topple as the frightened inhabitants flee outside

In all likelihood the mining apparatus in the cave was damaged, and with the decline in demand for nitre after the war, this may have contributed to the project’s abandonment. The cave, however, had other uses. Hyman Gratz, in 1813, acquired the remainder of the original 200-acre Simon tract, and he and Wilkins increased their holdings to 1,340 acres – to control all entrances to the underground. For they had discovered that people would pay for the chance to go in. The cave had earned a share of fame during the war, and people began to arrive wishing to see the sights. Gratz and Wilkins hired caretakers for the property, and from 1812 until 1828 Archibald, William, and James Miller exhibited the cave for visitors. The Millers were followed in turn by James Moore and later by Fleming Gatewood.

Last updated: May 23, 2018

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