Earthquake of 1884 in New York

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William and other New Yorkers were surprised by an earthquake in the early afternoon of August 10, 1884.  Damage and injuries were limited, but the newspapers provided extensive coverage of the earthquake, whose epicenter was later determined to be located in Brooklyn.

Newspapers in New York and in other affected areas provided extensive coverage of the earthquake on August 10, 1884.  William remarked that the children’s nurse, Bertha, was badly frightened by the event.(Diary, 1884-08-10)  Numerous anecdotes were reported in the newspapers about how the earthquake was felt along the east coast and its effects. 

Captain W.A. Kirkland of the New York Navy yard reported to the Navy Department that an earthquake was felt in the Navy Yard at 2:09 Sunday afternoon.  He reported that there were three rumblings, their duration being about forty seconds, extending in a northeasterly and southeasterly direction.  No damage was found at the Navy Yard. (3)

Professor C.A. Young of Princeton College reported that he felt the earthquake at 7.5 minutes past 2 o’clock.  Because he was only a few feet from the observatory clock, and went to it immediately, the time could be trusted within 10 or 15 seconds. (7)

Although initially the Ramapo Fault in New Jersey was thought to have caused the earthquake, later investigations as reported by the New Jersey Geological Survey (NJGS), determined that the epicenter was located in Brooklyn, New York, approximately 25 miles from the Ramapo Fault.  According to the NJGS, the Ramapo Fault was the only large fault mapped in 1884. (2)

It was not until 1931 and 1935 that the Modified Mercalli Scale (MMS), measuring intensity, and Richter Scale, measuring magnitude, were developed.  The scale developed by Charles F. Richter in 1935, measures the amplitude of waves as recorded on seismographs, in an open-ended logarithmic scale, in which the amplitude of the successive level is ten times greater than the level below it.  The twelve-level MMS, developed in 1931, is more arbitrary in that it is based on effects experienced by observers. (5)

The NJGS placed the 1884 earthquake at 5.5 on the Richter Scale and VII on the MMS. (2)

Newspapers reported anecdotes describing the reaction of the populace. These accounts varied from broken crockery to an actual claim of death from fright.  A report from Kingston NY claimed that a 72-year old man, who was in his woodshed at the time of the earthquake, died 6 days later, never recovering from his shattered nervous system (4).  The earthquake was also asserted to reconcile two New Jersey families who had been at loggerheads for years. (6)

The New York Times reported that massive structures like the Post Office and Equitable Building seemed to sway back and forth, and that the Western Union Telegraph Office received reports of experienced sensations extending from Pennsylvania to Maine and as far south as Washington and up to the line of the Great Lakes.  Further reports were that in some houses panes of glass, crockery or lamps were broken, but mostly nothing more serious than a fright.  Boats lying at the city piers trembled; however, passengers on the ferryboats from Brooklyn and States Island were surprised to learn of the earthquake. (1)  Captain Strum of the brig Alice, arriving from Turk’s Island, reported that he felt the shock at 2:10 PM when about seven miles east of the Highlands.  It was accompanied by a rumbling noise, and it seemed as if the vessel has hit a submerged wreck.  The pumps were sounded, but no leaks were found. (7)

The earthquake occurred during a funeral in Amityville, Suffolk County.  As the minister was about to kneel to pray, a large wall-length mirror cracked from top to bottom, the walls were cracked in two places, and flowers were shaken off the coffin.  It was reported that the minister and several mourners fainted, and there was a stampede to get outside.  One lady sprained her leg as she jumped through the window. (7)

A New York city resident wrote that following the earthquake he witnessed a cloud of sulphurous gas in Fort Washington, near High Bridge, and that the gas had a strongly marked disagreeable odor. (2)

All in all, newspaper reports of personal experiences were numerous throughout that week.

William subsequently noted in the diary two other earthquake events, one local and one in the U.S. northwest.(Diary, 1895-09-01, 10-31)



1. "Consternation in the City," The New York Times, August 11, 1884, p. 1.
2. Dombroski, Daniel R., Jr., Earthquake Risk in New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey, Department of Environmental Protection Land Use Management, 1998 (Revised 2005).
3. "The Earthquake Observed at New York Navy Yard," The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., August, 12, 1884, p. 1.
4. "Killed by the Earthquake," The New York Times, August 17, 1884, p. 1.
5. The Severity of an Earthquake.(1986) U.S.G.S. Special Interest Publication. USGPO 1989-288-913.
6. Untitled, The New York Times, August 12, 1884, p. 4.
7. "Work of the Earthquake," The New York Times, August 12, 1884, p. 5.