by James Rada, Jr.
Things That Go “Boom” In the Night
January 2, 1887, was a cold day in Frederick County. Thermometers hovered around eight degrees. Fireplaces and stoves were stoked with roaring fires to fight back the cold that was pushing its way through every crack and crevice of a home.
Several inches of snow, hardened with a covering of ice, covered the ground, and sheets of ice coated the roofs of buildings. Moonlight reflected off the frozen snow, giving it a slight glow even at midnight.
“A young gentleman returning home in his sleigh about this time, says the cracking of the ice on a roof, by which he passed, was so loud and forcible, that it scared his horse,” the Emmitsburg Chronicle reported.
Although few people reported feeling anything, doors swung open, and objects toppled over “as if burglars were doing the houses,” according to the Clarion.
Many more people described hearing sounds that sounded like explosions. The Emmitsburg Chronicle compared it to the sound of a well being excavated.
“But mostly the sounds were above, as some describe them—like unto the clatter of tearing off a roof,” the Emmitsburg Chronicle reported.
The Catoctin Clarion reported, “At this point the report was sufficiently loud to suggest to Mr. J. W. Weast, a merchant at that point, that his safe had been blown up and he hurriedly dressed himself and visited his safe, only to find it intact.”
Reports came in from all over Frederick County and parts of Carroll County. Westminster residents seem to have felt the earthquake and experienced damage.
The Frederick Daily News reported that because no one in Emmitsburg felt any tremors, no one actually considered it an earthquake.
The Emmitsburg Chronicle offered a scientific reason for the noises not being an earthquake, writing “to one suddenly awaking in the night, and considering that there have not been received any accounts of clocks being stopped, or household things displaced, as in earthquake manifestations, together with the simultaneousness of the occurrences at points, miles apart, we infer the who matter was purely electrical. Indeed a writer not long ago undertook to prove that seismic phenomena were but electrical manifestations, on the earth’s surface and not from the interior.”
Although the county is not prone to earthquakes and doesn’t sit on a fault line, it was an earthquake—albeit an unusual one—that hit the county that night. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, east of the Rocky Mountains, fault lines are a poor indicator of where earthquakes will hit. The USGS website states, “In contrast, things are less straightforward east of the Rockies because it is rare for earthquakes to break the ground surface. In particular, east of the Rockies, most known faults and fault lines do not appear to have anything to do with modern earthquakes. We don’t know why. An earthquake is as likely to occur on an unknown fault as on a known fault, if not more likely. The result of all this is that fault lines east of the Rockies are unreliable guides to where earthquakes are likely to occur.”
Whatever the reason for the earthquake, it was a disturbing way for Frederick County residents to welcome in the new year on January 2, 1887.