Times Past

The 1857 Fort Tejon Earthquake reminds us to pray to this saint when the ground shakes

St. Emygdius stained glass window from St. Emygdius Church in San Francisco.
St. Emygdius stained glass window from St. Emygdius Church in San Francisco.

The Fort Tejon Earthquake that shook San Luis Obispo County and much of California on Jan. 9, 1857 was the largest recorded in California history with a force estimated between 7.9 to magnitude-8 on the Richter scale.

It caused many rivers in the Sierra Nevada, from the Mokelumne in the north to the Kern in the south, to flow backward. Water from Tulare Lake, which still occupied a large section of the lower San Joaquin Valley, was thrown out, stranding fish miles from the original lake bed.

The temblor was one of the most intense seismic events in North America. It ruptured the escarpment along more than 220 miles of the San Andreas Fault with an average slip of 15 feet. The largest displacement was 30 feet wide in the Carrizo Plains. Foreshocks of the temblor were first felt in the Cholame-Parkfield area of northeastern SLO County.

In 1978, seismologist Kerry Sieh wrote that the Elkhorn Thrust, a low-angle thrust fault near the San Andreas, may have slipped simultaneously in the 1857 quake. Researchers in 1996 theorized that the San Andreas fault zone might produce simultaneous ruptures on thrust faults, creating a monster “double earthquake.”

In 1857, the structural damage was greatest at Fort Tejon, which was located along today’s Interstate 5 between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. In nearby Ventura, the mission sustained considerable damage. Part of the church tower collapsed.

Fortunately, Southern California was thinly populated during the 1850s. Most of the inhabitants of L.A., Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo had departed for the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848-49 and had yet to return.

There are only two reported deaths. A woman at Reed’s Ranch near Fort Tejon on the Kern-L.A. county line was killed by the collapse of an adobe house. An elderly man who may have remembered the terrible earthquakes of 1812 died, maybe from fear, in a plaza in L.A.

Residents of L.A., Santa Barbara and San Francisco had haunting memories of unmanned church bells pealing at 8:20 that morning. Frightened parishioners turned to their priests and ministers.

Some advised praying to St. Agatha (231-251), who was said to prevent eruptions of Mount Etna in Sicily. St. Gregory of Neocaesarea (213-270) was said to have changed the course of a river like the earthquake did. Many called on St. Francis Borgia (1510-1572), said to have saved many in a 1756 quake that killed 50,000 people in Lisbon.

Thaddeus Amat, Bishop of Monterey, preferred St. Emygdius (279-309), whose feast day is on Aug. 9. Amat wrote to Pope Pius IX for permission to venerate St. Emygdius as a protector from “los temblores.”

We don’t have much information about St. Emygdius. He was probably born in Trier in modern Germany. He converted from paganism and may have become a bishop in the early church. He is often associated with tearing down pagan temples, but came to be a savior of imperiled lives and structures.

Today, there are St. Emydius parishes in San Francisco and Lynwood. If you visit Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in L.A., you will see St. Emydius’ image on the beautiful Belgian tapestry on the south wall.

On Aug. 13, 1978, my birthday, I was working inside Nipomo’s Dana Adobe when an estimated 5.1 temblor struck southeast of Santa Barbara. The force was sufficient to derail a freight train near Goleta, fiercely shaking the nearly 140-year-old walls of the yet unrestored adobe. Dust from the ancient plaster filled the air, and I had a sense of impending doom. The first thought that came to my head was that I had been baptized in a church dedicated to St. Emygdius.

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Local author Carol McPhee will speak about and sign copies of her new book, “A Small Town Women’s Movement: A Memior,” from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Coalesce Bookstore, 845 Main Street, Morro Bay.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.