A Report of the Earthquake of 1867

(On the afternoon of November 18, 1867, a disastrous magnitude 7.5 earthquake occurred in an intraplate fault of the Anegada Trough separating Saint Croix from the main chain of the Virgin Islands. The following account of this epic earthquake is a verbatim transcript from an article entitled “AN EARTHQUAKE EXPERIENCE” by Louis van Housel, a United States Naval officer serving on the vessel ‘Monongahela’ under Commodore Bissel’s command. It was originally published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1878. This article ultimately became the centerpiece of the work published in 1997 by Roy A. Watlington and Shirley H. Lincoln of the University of the Virgin Islands entitled DISASTER AND DISRUPTION in 1867: Hurricane, Earthquake and Tsunami in the Danish West Indies. We are most delighted to tell you that Mr. Watlington will be the speaker at our January meeting.)

… Nothing unusual attracted our attention until three o’clock in the afternoon of the 18th of November, when our vessel began to quiver and rock as if a mighty giant had laid hold of her and was trying to loosen every timber in her frame. Officers and men ran pell-mell on deck to ascertain the cause of such a phenomenon. The vibrations continued the space of perhaps a minute, accompanied by a buzzing noise somewhat like the draught of a smelting furnace, or the hum of innumerable swarms of bees. So certain were we that the cause was connected in some way with the ship that no one cast an eye on shore. Various suggestions were made by old and young.

“Blowing down the boilers!” said one. There being no fires under the boilers, such a solution was impossible.

“A drum fish fastened to the vessel’s bottom,” suggested another.

“It’s an earthquake, sir; look ashore!” shouted from the bow an old blue jacket, who had felt the peculiar sensation before. I looked toward Frederickstadt and saw a dusty hazy atmosphere over the town. I could see men, women and children, running hither and thither, and could catch faint cries of distress. Noticing that a part of the stone tower of the English Church had fallen, I surmised great damage had been done the dwellings, and was expecting to hear our boats called away to render assistance to the inhabitants. Full five minutes had elapsed since the shock, when I heard a peculiar grating noise, and looking over the bow I found the chain sawing on the cut–water, and as taut as a harp string, full ten fathoms of it being out of water. On reporting the fact aft, the warp from the quarter which was used to swing the ship broadside to the land–breeze, was let go, when we found we were dragging anchor very rapidly, because of the powerful currents, the first effect of the shock. Orders were immediately given to “veer” chain; the executive officer ordered the “stoppers” to be cut. A sailor seized an ax and delivered but a stroke or two, when the tremendous strain broke them, and with the leap of a huge serpent the iron cable ran out the hawse-pipe with continually increasing velocity, swaying and leaping in its mad career, defying the power of the men at the compressor with their powerful lever to stop it; on and on it dashed, making the vessel’s bow rise and fall as it increased in momentum, marking its erratic course with a streak of fire, until coming to the end there was a perceptible rising of the deck, a tremendous jerk and the heavy fourteen-inch bolt riveted in a solid oak beam was torn out and the last links connecting the vessel to the anchor went flourishing and wriggling overboard with the rest. The last couple of fathoms swept the decks thoroughly under the top-gallant forecastle, upsetting and smashing the carpenter’s bench and grindstone, and whipping up the ladder, making it execute a back somersault in the air. We were now adrift at the mercy of the currents.

An effort was made to man the starboard compressor so as to check the other anchor when let go; but the men had come on deck and were standing panic-stricken, gazing at the terrible appearance of the sea. A reef had risen off the northern point of the island where but a few minutes before were several fathoms of water. Our vessel advanced toward and receded from the shore with the waters until, as if some great power had raised up the bottom of the bay, the sea rapidly closed in on the town, filling the houses and covering the street running along the beach to a depth of twenty-four feet. Our ship, following the current, took a course toward the southern end of the town, until over the edge of the street it swung her bow toward the north and was carried along-smashing a frame store-house, and breaking down a row of shade-trees. During this maneuver an effort was made to hoist the jib in the hope of catching a breeze to keep us off the town. The halliards were manned, when it was found that the cover (a strong piece of canvas) was holding it fast. Several men rushed out to remove the impediment, but their nervous fingers tugged in vain at the stubborn knots when an officer ordered them to cut it loose; only one knife was convenient, and the man using it had ripped but a couple of feet of the cover, when his trembling hand dropped it overboard. Men were then ordered aloft to loose the fore top-sail. A dozen or more brave ones rushed up the rigging nearly to the top, when catching a vision of the angry and turbulent sea they stopped, trembling in the presence of the mighty power that was abroad, and retreated to the deck. Again were the jib halliards manned, in the hope of tearing the sail from its cover. The men would tug at the rope with frantic efforts for a moment, then turn for a glimpse at the threatening sea, and the rope would drop from their hands. By this time the rush of waters was toward the ocean. We were carried out perhaps five hundred yards from the shore, when our vessel grounded and the water continuing its retreat, she careened over on her port beam’s ends. The bottom of the roadstead was now visible, nearly bare, for a distance of half a mile beyond us, and that immense body of water which had covered the bay and part of the town was re-forming with the whole Atlantic Ocean as an ally, for a tre–mendous charge upon us and the shore. This was the supreme moment of the catastrophe. As far as the eye could reach to the north and to the south was a high threatening wall of green water. It seemed to pause for a moment as if marshaling its strength, and then on it came in a majestic unbroken column, more awe-inspiring than an army with banners. The suspense was terrible! Our, noble vessel seemed as a tiny nut-shell to withstand the shock of the mighty rushing Niagara that was advancing upon us. Many a hasty prayer was muttered by lips unaccustomed to devotion. All expected to be engulfed, and but few had any hope of surviving. We all seized hold of some stationary object with the intent of preventing ourselves from being washed overboard. “Hold fast!” was the cry, as the tidal-wave struck the ship with gigantic force, making every timber shiver. Yet, singular enough, not a drop of water reached her decks. Being rather flat-bottomed the first effect of the blow was to send her over her starboard beam’s ends, which gave the water an opportunity of getting well under her before righting, when she was buoyed to the crest of the wave and carried broadside to the shore, finally landing on the edge of the street in a cradle of rocks that seemed prepared for her reception. Here she rested with her decks inclined at an angle of fifteen degrees. A small Spanish brig was carried bodily inland across the cane-fields and landed in the midst of the king’s highway. The waters again retreated and assumed such a threatening appearance, that our commander, fearing another tidal wave (which would have dashed us against the stone houses or against the walls of a Danish fort just ahead of us), gave the order, “Every man save himself!” In an instant ropes were thrown over the sides and the crew began sliding down them like spiders and making for the hills in the rear of the town. Seizing one of the fore try-sail vangs I flung it over the side, securing the part even with the deck to a cleat; after the few men who still remained forward had descended on my rope and I had cast a glance seaward to calculate the chances of getting clear of the ship’s bottom before the sea struck her again, I swung to it and descended so rapidly that my hands paid a severe penalty, the rope cutting the flesh nearly to the bone.

Upon striking the ground I immediately cut round the corner of the street leading to the nearest hill. Like Lot, I looked not back, but made the best time possible, soon overtaking a squad of our men that had preceded me. On arriving at the first cross street we were beset by a rush of water that had been thrown far up in the town, seeking its way back to the sea. We were soon in water waist deep, contending with a strong current as best we could. The situation was not so critical, however, as to prevent us from noting some comical incidents. This water bore on its surface all manner of debris which it had gathered from the yards and houses in its course–chairs, cradles, bedsteads, broken fences and doors, together with flocks of clucks and geese quacking and gabbling, utterly bewildered by the sudden rise of their natural element.

We blundered and stumbled along, making all haste for fear the sea would overtake us. A marine secured a horse that had been abandoned by its owner and mounting rode to the rescue of a Negro girl who was clinging to a fence. Seating her in front of him. He steered his bark again for the hills with two or three blue jackets towing astern, hanging to the horse’s tail. But even this craft was doomed to be shipwrecked, for the horse stumbled over some obstacle and tossed both marine and girl far over his head into the muddy depths. No injury resulting, we all arrived safely at the foot of the hill of refuge. Here was a scene never to be for–gotten. Whites and blacks were collected in groups, praying, crying, and wringing their hands; some counting their beads; and some on their knees reading aloud from their prayer-books. One old Negro, with an open family Bible in his hand was going about prophesying, saying, “Breddern, dis is noffin to what it will be in ’72. Den you will cry for de hills and de mountains to fall on you and hide you,” which gave courage to many of us, as we did not feel quite sure the hills and mountains were not about to fall on us without a special invitation. Many incidents of interest I might chronicle, that occurred aboard our vessel during the interval between the shock and her final landing on the shore. When our apparently hopeless situation began to be realized by all of us, it was curious to mark the manner in which it affected different individuals. Our chief boatswain’s mate stood unmoved at his post, whistle in hand, never forgetting to pipe “haul away,” or “belay,” when appropriate, and if I remember correctly, his whistle piped the men over the side when the order “every man save himself” was announced. Some were heard to remark, “We are all lost, but we must do the best we can,” and worked with a will. One man ran about the decks claiming in the face of the officers, “My God! we are all lost!” Two prisoners in double irons hobbled on deck from their prison below, and begged, for God’s sake, to have their irons removed, that they might have an equal chance for their lives, with the rest of us. The master-at-arms was without his keys to unlock their shackles. He had given them to the ship’s corporal, who was on shore. No time was to be lost, so I ordered their chains to be cut. One of the prisoners seized a hatchet and, seating himself on the deck, in one powerful stroke severed the chain confining his ankles. He then cut the chains of his fellow-prisoner, who in turn cut those confining his wrists, leaving the bracelets still on wrists and ankles, but so as not to interfere with the free use of their limbs. When the commotion in the water first occurred, two men were sent in each of the boats to assist the keepers in getting them under the davits, the intention being to hoist to them. But the time was too short, and they drifted from the vessel. I watched the movements of one of these boats through a port as the wave approached. The three men in her manned their oars, and pointed her bow toward the enemy, bending every effort to give her head way in the shallow water, in the hope of topping the wave and riding it to shore. They did nobly. The boat’s bow rose nearly to the crest of the wave, and I hoped for a moment they would be successful, but their oars were caught foul by the on-rushing water, their boat thrown broadside to the wave, and crew and all were overwhelmed, two of them never to come up alive. The third one rose, and, seizing hold of a sugar hogshead that had been washed from the wharf, after many immersions finally reached shore unhurt. The coxswain of the commodore’s gig stood by his boat at the expense of his life. Keeping her under the quarter, when the final rush for the shore occurred, the vessel came down on boat and keeper. One poor fellow, who had just returned from liberty, lost his presence of mind, and leaped overboard at a time when no effort could be made to save him. Another, in descending, lost his hold on the rope, and fell to the ground, breaking both legs and sustaining other injuries. We carried him to a frame church on the hill, where the surgeons, after examination, announced to him it would be necessary to amputate both legs. He asked that he might see a priest before the operation. One was sent for, and, after a short interview, the brave fellow told the surgeons to proceed, saying he was ready for any emergency, and did not wish them to use anesthetics. One leg was amputated, by which time it became apparent that internal injuries of a fatal nature had been sustained, and he was saved further unnecessary suffering.

Leaving him in the hands of the surgeons I collected what men I could and returned to the vessel. Many had remained on board concluding that the threatening wave could not raise sufficient force for a second charge. When within hailing distance, I was commanded by a superior officer to take a cutlass and clear the men out of a grog shop on the opposite side of the street from the ship. On entering I found twenty or thirty of our crew making away with all the liquor their stomachs could accommodate. They found themselves among a rare assortment of the vilest kind from which to select, and many of their faces already glowed with the liquid fire they had imbibed. Foremost among them I noticed our two prisoners with their chains still dangling to their limbs, far gone in intoxication. I ordered them all out and stood guard until relieved by the owner. His face elongated perceptibly when he surveyed the scene within. Billiard-tables, chairs, counters, rum bottles and rubbish were piled together in a slimy heap at the further end of the room. On returning aboard ship for dry clothing I learned the full extent of damage sustained by our floating home. Her rudder was torn from its gimbals, forty feet of keel was gone, much copper was stripped off, two holes were in the bottom, and her frame was so racked that the engines were out of line, the shaft was bent near the propeller, and seams were gaping fore and aft.

Hearing that a widow lady and family who resided a half mile from the town were in great distress, three of us who were acquainted with them proceeded to their assistance. We arrived at the house early in the evening and found them huddled together in the yard almost paralyzed with terror, without shelter and their house so damaged that it would have to be rebuilt. We removed what furniture and clothing was necessary for their present comfort and improvising a tent we prepared for camping out for the night. We built a large fire under the trees and made everyone as comfortable as possible. But in vain did we woo sleep that night. Severe shocks occurred at intervals of a half hour during the entire night, which had the effect of keeping us all on the qui vive. So there was nothing for us to do but accept the situation and make the best of it. The night was beautiful and clear, the heavens were filled with bright stars and, in spite of the unfortunate condition in which we were all placed, there was a charm in the situation, whether owing to presence of the ladies or the novelty of the surroundings I cannot say. But this I know, the mental exertion put forth by the sterner sex to allay the fear and anxiety of the gentler, gave all a flow of spirits and humor that the frequent and violent shock could but temporarily subdue. So passed the first night with us, and when the morning dawned we folded our tents and moved our friends into the town and gave them a part of a large tent made from the ship’s awnings and erected by our crew in a palm-grove for the benefit of such white families as might feel disposed to accept of its hospitable shelter.

The Negroes from the plantations were terribly affected by the earthquakes; they saw water oozing from the sides of the hills, where no springs were known, and the rumbling and shaking of the earth filled them with superstitious terrors. Some of them died from fright, as I was informed by a clergyman who ministered among them. Hundreds of them flocked into town and for the accommodation of them and others we constructed a tent out of our mainsail. The scene in this palm-grove was not unlike an old-time camp-meeting. The sojourners in both tents devoted their time principally to religious exercises, of which singing formed the greater part. At times these tents would be giving forth volumes of music and praise that made the very welkin ring; but in a day or two it came to be the custom to alternate, one listening while the other sang until the superiority of the Negro music was acknowledged, when the black tent had to bear the burden of song. We had a good opportunity for observing the Negro character under the most trying circumstances, and had abundant evidence of its volatile nature. They were all very devout, very penitent for the first three, days, and spent the day and nearly all the night-time in prayer and praise. If there was a cessation in their devotions at any time, night or day, a shock was sure to revive them, and a long prayer and one hymn, at least, would follow. But as days passed and the shocks occurred with less frequency and violence, the Negroes’ natural gayety arose, and as their repertoire of hymns had been exhausted, some of them occasionally would venture to interject a popular ballad imported from the states, and all would join in and render it with a full chorus. On one occasion they were singing with great gusto, “I wish I were in Dixie,” when whir – r -er’ came a tremendous vibration, which hushed every voice in an instant, and, as soon as recovered, fervent prayers took the place of the worldly song. Followed by a doubly appropriate hymn beginning, “On Jordon’s stormy banks I stand.”

People outside of the tents conducted themselves during these trying times in various manners. Some relied solely on their devotions, others gave rum their exclusive attention, while still others there were who made as they thought, a judicious admixture of the two. All, however, seemed to suffer acutely from anxiety and nervousness. There is nothing, I believe, so trying to a healthy nervous system as a succession of earthquakes. To a landsman a gale at sea has untold terrors; yet the tossings of his bark can be accounted for: the wind and waves are there, and the result may be anticipated. But in an earthquake all these factors are wanting; the cause is mysterious and unknown; the result anticipated is destruction in some form, and the tension of the nerves is most wearing. Imagination magnifies the danger, and thus keeps the sensorium on a constant strain for the next shock. The third day after the wreck an unusually severe vibration occurred, after which the smell of sulphur was plainly perceptible. I was standing at the time by the side of a friend, and so affected was I by this new symptom of danger that I could not mention it. I felt like one who sees a fatal symptom appearing on the face of a sick friend; my heart fell within me, and I could not muster courage to speak of it. My friend sniffed the Plutonic odor, however, and exclaimed, “Gods! X., did you smell brimstone? What if a volcano be under us!” I confess I was trying to banish the same thought.

At length, after fourteen days of anxiety, we were relieved by the appearance of the United States steamer “De Soto,” from St. Thomas (herself badly damaged by the tidal wave), with instructions to convey all but a few of us back to the United States. How glad we were to quit that island words cannot express. Ocean, with its uncertainties, its waves and tempests, even in a damaged vessel, was thrice welcome.

Our ark of refuge bore us safely to our native shores, and Uncle Sam, not forgetful of his own, had our noble vessel launched and repaired from keel to mast-head, and today she sails the seas without a mark of her rough handling by the earthquake wave.

Louis van Housel

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