“The shock of an earthquake was felt here [in Rockville] on Sunday last at 2:15 p.m. It was perceptible in all parts of town and at adjacent points in the county. This unusual phenomena of nature in this latitude caused some excitement and fear among timid persons. The shock was much more severe in the Northern States.”

So reported the weekly Montgomery County Sentinel on August 15, 1884, the first issue to appear after the earthquake of August 10. The ways in which the DC area reacted to yesterday’s seismic event – up to and including the posting of Facebook status updates about the quake during the quake – made me wonder how the county reacted to earlier earthquakes, in those far-away days before news websites, social media, text messages, and even telephones. In some ways the reactions are pretty similar, albeit without the benefit of instant communication.

Readers who relied on the local Sentinel had to wait five days (and it didn’t make the front page; the snippet quoted above was the 13th news item under “Local and Personal” on page 3). The daily Washington Post reported the quake on the next day, the 11th, in dispatches from various states and in a longer article with one of those comprehensive subheadlines: “AN EARTHQUAKE SHOCK. MANY TOWNS AND CITIES STARTLED FROM THEIR SUNDAY SLUMBERS. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut Severely Shaken Up – An Extraordinary Phenomenon for the East Atlantic Coast – Its Extent, Duration and Other Phenomena – Street Cars Lifted from Their Tracks – Chimneys Overturned – The Brooklyn Bridge Towers Rocked Like Reeds in a Wind – Tidal Disturbances in Philadelphia – Strange Incidents – No Loss of Life.” This piece was mostly about New York; I was interested to note that after the quake subsided, New York City’s “women and children . . . returned to their houses, while the men assembled in groups in the streets, discussing the occurrence which had so startled them.” (Yesterday’s evacuated office workers can probably relate to this.) Without the internet to give them instant information and/or speculation, the city’s residents had to rely upon each other.

The Post’s earthquake report for Maryland (printed on the 11th) included this update from Rockville: “Rockville, Md., Aug. 10. – An earthquake shock of considerable severity, accompanied by a distinctly audible reverberation, was felt here this afternoon at 2:15 o’clock. The shock was sufficiently powerful to arouse persons who were asleep by the rocking motion which it produced, and in a number of cases doors that had been left open were closed with a slam. At the residence of Hon. George Peters the dishes upon the table were set shaking and the windows rattling, and similar disturbances were noted elsewhere. A bevy of ladies who were enjoying themselves in hammocks were so alarmed that they ran screaming in all directions.” I didn’t run screaming, but I did leap up from my desk chair, panicked and swearing.

The Annals of Sandy Spring (Volume II), a collection of the history of the community each year, described the quake in this way: “Eighth month [1884], 10th. An earthquake, which extended from Maine to Virginia, was severely felt in many houses at the time it occurred, and more persons felt it perceptibly the next day, after reading of it in the papers.” (Ha!) Thus our generation is not the first to have their experiences amplified, and made more ‘real’, through description and retelling; we just have more immediate and graphic ways of doing the retelling.

The Bennett family of Rockville enjoying their hammock, circa 1895. No, these aren't necessarily the ladies who fled their hammocks in terror, but I couldn't resist using the photo. Donated by Laurence Halstead, MCHS Collections.

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