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When the Mississippi Flowed Backward
Tectonic events like the 5.8 magnitude earthquake in California and the volcanic eruption in Washington caught our attention. But they failed to match the New Madrid earthquake of Dec. 1811–Feb. 1812 causing the mighty Mississippi River to briefly retreat.
Consider the eyewitness account of Fermin La Roche, a French fur trader from St. Louis.
The border west of the Mississippi was sold to the United States by France just eight years before the earthquake. Missouri was a territory, not yet a state.
LaRoche’s account—preserved in the Missouri Historical Review archives—was written in New Orleans on February 20, 1812, when aftershocks were still frequent. He had just completed a disastrous voyage that began with three flat-boats:
A sound like thunder
“I was present at the recent earthquake along both banks of the Mississippi River above and below the mouth of the Ohio River.
“I was taking three boats to New Orleans with some furs I had bought in St. Louis. On the evening of the 15th of December, we anchored at the house of my cousin John Leclerc, eight miles north of New Madrid.
“With me was Father Joseph of the mission of the Osages, who had returned home to France — also Jacques Menier, Dominic Burgess, Leon Sarpy, Henri Lamel, five other men, and the negro slave Ben, who had been killed at New. Madrid.
“After we had dinner, we went to bed. I was awakened by a crash like thunder. The boat turned sideways and Lamel, who was sleeping next to it, was thrown over me. We fell over the side. It was very dark.
“In about an hour and a half we got away from the shore, and I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. I saw trees falling on the shore. A great mass of earth fell into the river.
“Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log. In a moment, there came such a great wave on the river that I have never seen in the sea. It carried us northward, upstream, for more than a mile. The water spread over the bank—three or four miles inland. spread out
“There was a backward current. Then the tide stopped and slowly the river went right again.
“There was a sound like thunder everywhere. The ground was shaking and the trees were shaking. There was a lot of smoke in the air. There was a lot of lightning.
“We believed we were sure to die. Fr. Joseph acquitted us. We never saw either of the other two boats. We never saw either of them again—nor do I know whether the men in them were drowned. We were all great. Fear, Expectation of death.
“Trees were blown down. People said there were big cracks in the ground – some very deep – stretching 10 or 15 miles. “We were told there was a new lake in Tennessee (Reelfoot) and the water courses there had changed. The Yazoo River has a new mouth.
“I was in a lot of pain with a broken arm. There was no one with me except Father Joseph. My personal loss was $600 (about $12,000 in today’s currency).”
Memoirs of a priest
In an appendix to La Roche’s account, Father Joseph said:
“I think there were two great shocks half an hour apart, and many smaller shocks between and after. The water rose so high that a tree on the bank — the top of which must have been 30 feet above the level of the river — was completely covered. .
“We saw two houses on fire on the left bank. When we got to New Madrid, houses were burning there too.
“We tied ashore about dawn, and a hickory tree fell on the boat—killed the negro, Ben, and broke the left arm of LaRoche, the keeper.
“We made no attempt to find out how many people had been killed, although we were told there were many. We saw many dead bodies. Later we saw drowned people floating in the river.
“The men who crowded into the vessel with us threw loads of fur into the river until we could take no more.”
Another eyewitness account (edited here for brevity) was deposed by New Madrid resident Eliza Bryan, four years after the event.
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about 2 o’clock in the morning, we were struck with a violent shock of an earthquake. It was accompanied by a most dreadful sound which sounded like a loud but distant peal of thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating.
“In a few minutes the sulphurous vapors of the atmosphere completely saturated, causing total darkness.
“The screams of the truly terrified inhabitants running hither and thither, not knowing where to go, what to do—the cries of birds and beasts of every species—the crashing of trees—and the roar of the Mississippi. Which for a few minutes was retrograde.
“The inhabitants fled in all directions, perceiving danger at a shorter distance than near the river.
“Several light shocks occurred daily until January 23, 1812. Then, one became as violent as the previous shock.
“From this time until the 4th of February, the earth was in constant agitation – visibly undulating like a gentle sea.
“On the 7th of February, about 4 a.m., a shock so violent was experienced that it was termed a ‘hard shock.’
“The terrible darkness of the atmosphere filled with sulphurous vapors and the sound of stormy thunder created a scene beyond imagination.
“At first, the Mississippi seemed to recede from its shores—its waters gathering like mountains. For a moment, many boats bound for New Orleans were left on the bare sand. The poor sailors rescued them.
“The river then rose and widened vertically 15 to 20 feet. The banks were overwhelmed by the retrograde current. Boats now left on the sand were torn from their moorings.
“The river was falling as fast as it rose, taking with it whole stands of cottonwood. Many fish were left on the banks.
“Amidst all the hard shocks, the earth was broken up into great pieces. Hundreds of acres of land were covered with sand from the fissures. In some places there was a substance like coal.
“It has recently been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot) has formed in the Indian country (West Tennessee) on the opposite side of the Mississippi. It is more than 100 miles in length, from one to six miles wide, and from 10 to 50 feet deep.
“For eighteen months, we were forced to live in small camps because of the fear that our houses would collapse due to the constant tremors. Some people fled, never to return, but most people went back.”
Demon earth fault
The US Geological Survey rated three major earthquakes in the central Mississippi Valley during the winter of 1811–12 as “the most powerful in American history”.
There were no seismographs then. However, the extent of ground changes indicated three, closely related, earthquakes — magnitudes 8 or greater on the ten-fold Richter seismograph scale.
The most powerful earthquake on record was the 1964 Alaska earthquake with a magnitude of 8.4.
“Earthquakes in the central United States affect a much larger area than earthquakes of similar magnitude in the western US,” states the USGS.
“San Francisco, Calif., 1906 earthquake (magnitude 7.8) felt 350 miles away. First New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, Mass., a thousand miles away.”
In 1811 there were 400 log cabins in New Madrid. St. Louis and Memphis were smaller cities. “If a magnitude-8 earthquake struck there today, most of those cities would be destroyed and thousands of people killed,” the USGS says
Last year, 470 measurable earthquakes were recorded in the Central Mississippi Valley.
Warning by USGS: “There is a greater than 90 percent chance of a magnitude 6 to 7 earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone within the next 50 years.”
Which is worst – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, mudslides, volcanoes or earthquakes?
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