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How the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake near Parkfield shook SLO County

Wallace Creek swings 430 feet northwest as the creekbed issues from the Panorama Hills before finding its historic outlet. Geology outpaces rainfall in the dry Carrizo Plain, and the Z shape is the result of 3,700 years of movement on the San Andreas Fault.
Wallace Creek swings 430 feet northwest as the creekbed issues from the Panorama Hills before finding its historic outlet. Geology outpaces rainfall in the dry Carrizo Plain, and the Z shape is the result of 3,700 years of movement on the San Andreas Fault. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Friday morning began unsettled, with the cold winter stillness in the Cholame Valley broken at 6:30 and again at 7:30 by moderate earthquakes.

Vaqueros riding the range could not know these were only foreshocks, prelude to a great earthquake. Six to 12 miles under its surface, the Earth was about to lurch and snap, triggering the biggest California earthquake in written history.

It happened about 8:20 a.m. on Jan. 9, 1857, northwest of what is now Parkfield, in southern Monterey County about 35 miles northeast of Paso Robles. The ground roared, slipped and shook south along the San Andreas Fault. Estimates place it at a magnitude-7.9 to magnitude-8 quake, about twice the potency of the 1906 San Francisco quake.

It would come to be known as the Great Fort Tejon Earthquake of 1857. Though the epicenter was actually 120 miles to the north, the fort took the brunt of the quake’s rage, as structures toppled and one woman died.

There are few accounts of the quake, as there were few witnesses to record it. Most of the state’s population was in the San Francisco Bay area, on the trail to the gold fields or in walking distance of sailing ships on the coast.

The 1850 census of San Luis Obispo County shows 334 residents, with 46 male landowners registered to vote.

Many of the firsthand accounts have been collected by Kerry Sieh, a California Institute of Technology professor and geologist, and are found in various books and Web sites. The accounts that follow, unless otherwise noted, come from “Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault,” by Philip L. Fradkin.

Here is a simulation of ground motion after a magnitude 8 earthquake on the San Andreas fault, showing ground shaking throughout Southern California for more than 75 seconds after the rupture begins near Parkfield. San Diego Supercomputer Center r

‘The end of the world’

In a 1916 interview, Maria Ocarpia, a Salinan Indian living near Cholame, recalled when the quake started.

“We were frightened and thought that the end of the world had come,” Ocarpia said. “The animals were frightened at the water from the earthquake. The oak trees bent to the earth, and the people were frightened and fell on their faces and prayed.”

A settler building the first cabin in the area became the first person to lose a building in the quake.

John Barker was walking his horse through frosty grass at Tulare Lake, about 35 miles east of Parkfield, according to an account that can be found on the Southern California Earthquake Center’s Web site, along with a trail guide to the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain.

He noted a thin film of ice on the watering hole, and then the shaking began.

“I was affected by a fearful nausea. My horse snorted and, in terror, struggled violently to get away from me,” Barker said. “But I hung to him, having as great a fear as he had himself.

“The lake commenced to roar like the ocean in a storm, and staggering and bewildered, I vaulted into the saddle and my terrified horse started, as eager as I was to get out of the vicinity.”

The next day, Barker found vultures feasting on dead fish thrown out onto the shore.

Closer to Alaska

Cracking about 1.5 miles per second, the fault furrowed southeast into the Carrizo Plain, in southeastern San Luis Obispo County.

In this part of San Luis Obispo County, every day the sunrise casts shadows from the Temblor Range across the arid valley. Rain is so sparse here that geology outpaces erosion. Streams dogleg from historic slips.

When the shaking stopped that day, the west side of the Carrizo Plain, the site of maximum displacement, was as much as 30 feet closer to Alaska.

Then 19, Juan Francisco Dana was at the family home in Nipomo, 40 miles west of the fault, when the mesa began to pitch and roll.

In his memoir “The Blond Ranchero,” Dana called it “one of the worst earthquakes this part of the country ever felt.”

Dust billowed out of rooms like a sandstorm as parts of adobe walls cracked and ground into powder — but the home remained standing. Nearby an oak tree was ripped from the ground leaving a large hole.

Further down the coast, Santa Barbara (then a town of 2,300) felt a gentle vibration building as the seconds ticked by to an undulating motion like a ship on moderate seas.

The Santa Barbara Gazette reported no material damage to the city, though the 40 to 60 seconds of shaking was “so violent in its vibrations that all of the inhabitants fled from their dwellings, the majority of whom, on bended knees, and hearts throbbing with terror, made fervent supplications that the imminent and impending danger might be providentially averted.”

The halfway point

The quake then took direct aim at a settlement: Fort Tejon, where the temblor would earn its name and take a life.

The fort guarded the trail from Los Angeles to the gold country through the Tehachapi Mountains, near where Interstate 5 now runs between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

The fort’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. B.L. Beall, was shaken out of bed. The quartermaster’s deputy described the wake-up call as “the most terrific shock imaginable, tearing the officers’ quarters to pieces, severely damaging the hospital and laying flat with the ground the gable ends of nearly all the buildings erected.”

According to the Santa Barbara Gazette, the wife of a vaquero was killed at Reed’s Rancho, six miles from Tejon on the Los Angeles trail (now Gorman), when the adobe she was in collapsed and a falling beam or wall landed on her head.

Another man was badly injured as he worked to rescue his children from the ruins of his home.

Almost every building in the area was knocked down or damaged.

The quake was roughly halfway through its 225-mile journey.

A city spared, a city torn

Fortunately for Los Angeles, the San Andreas Fault takes a big bend to the southeast. Even 40 miles from the fault and 180 miles from the epicenter, however, 4,000 residents fled into dusty sun-soaked streets.

Southern California felt a slow and gradual-building shake. According to The Los Angeles Star, the city’s first newspaper, the quake shook the city for two minutes.

“Trees were uprooted, houses thrown down and a series of small tidal waves occurred along the coast,” the newspaper reported, according to the California Historical Society Quarterly.

That evening petroleum seeps were seen burning in the southland, fueling rumors of volcanic eruptions.

An old man walking to church in the Los Angeles plaza died, his death attributed to fright.

Los Angeles avoided the worst, but San Bernardino lies on the fault’s trace.

Augusta Crocheron remembered a pleasant, still morning at the family farm near San Bernardino searching the garden for roses to decorate the breakfast table:

“I saw my parents and sisters clinging to large trees, whose branches lashed the ground, birds flew irregularly through the air shrieking, horses screamed, cattle fell bellowing to their knees,” Crocheron said.

As aftershocks rippled through the area, Crocheron later found what she thought was solid ground rent by a gash a foot wide and 100 feet long, “so dark and deep we feared even to measure it.”

The rupture took about 2.5 minutes to reach San Bernardino, 225 miles from Parkfield.

Perhaps the last witnesses to the quake’s southward journey were the crewmembers of a steamboat anchored in the mouth of the Colorado River. A crewmember wrote home:

“The boat rocked so that we could hardly stand. We looked up the river and the water all drained off of one place and left it dry. Then in a moment all rushed back again foaming and tumbling.”

Violent awakenings

Since 1857 much of this portion of the San Andreas Fault has remained locked, sleeping. However, research indicates that big events are the norm for the southern San Andreas, according to Sieh, who has studied this section of the fault since 1975. He and graduate students have excavated the fault in various locations trying to uncover the seismic history that stretches before written history. He has found six large events in the last 800 to 1,200 years.

South of Parkfield, the fault tends to sleep and wake violently. When enough stress has accumulated, a moderate Parkfield event could trigger a larger event southward. In fact some major quakes have occurred at 150-year intervals — about the same amount of time since the Great 1857 Fort Tejon Earthquake.

The next time, though, there will likely be more eyes to witness the destruction — and more destruction to witness.

Said Sieh, “It’s going to be one heck of an event.”

Close to the San Andreas Fault

Among the major structures and communities near or on the San Andreas Fault through Central and Southern California are:

▪  The cities and communities of Taft, Gorman, Frasier Park, Palmdale and San Bernardino;

▪  Interstate 5;

▪  Power lines running out of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant;

▪  Oil fields, pipelines and refineries in the Central Valley; and

▪  The coastal branch of California Aqueduct (which is above ground over the fault); and the meeting of that aqueduct and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, about 15 miles from Gorman.

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