at Yakutat Bay, Alaska, in September, 1899
June 21, 2007
By Ned Rozell
Fairbanks, Alaska - More than a century ago, eight prospectors were
panning the glacial sands near Hubbard Glacier when Earth starting shaking
and never seemed to stop. A few days later, they had survived a natural
phenomenon they probably should not have.
A photo showing shoreline uplifted during a massive 1899 earthquake
near Yakutat. From the 1912 USGS paper, The Earthquakes at Yakutat Bay,
Alaska in September, 1899.
Geologists Ralph Tarr and Lawrence Martin, in the area a few years later
to study the marvelous glaciers, saw things like mussels "resembling
clumps of blue flowers" on rocks 20 feet above the ocean. They
saw so much evidence of a giant earthquake they interviewed a few prospectors
in Yakutat and included their stories in a 1912 government paper, "The
Earthquakes at Yakutat Bay, Alaska, in September, 1899."
When Tarr and Martin arrived in Yakutat, prospector A. Flenner was working
as a carpenter there six years after the series of large earthquakes,
the biggest being a magnitude 8.0 that happened on Sept. 10, 1899. Flenner
had been panning for gold in the area that day.
"Mr. Flenner stated in 1905 that after the first shock on September
3 they rigged up a home-made seismograph, consisting of hunting knives
hung so that their points touched and would jingle under a slight oscillation,"
Tarr and Martin wrote. "With this instrument (rude, perhaps, but
more delicate than their own perception) they counted 52 shocks on September
10, up to the time of the heavy disturbance (the 8.0 earthquake) that
caused so much damage."
Another miner, L.A. Cox, was also at the scene.
"About 9 a.m. on the 10th we had a very severe shock (what USGS
later calculated as a magnitude 7.4 foreshock), so violent that one
could hardly keep his feet," Cox said. "The low alder brush
shook and bent like reeds in a gale of wind. (Then, at) 1:30 p.m., we
got the king bee of them all."
The king bee was a massive earthquake that shattered glaciers, lifted
areas of shoreline 47 feet out of the water, and caused "the death
of millions of individuals," Tarr and Martin wrote. Those individuals
were fish and crabs deposited on land, and barnacles, mussels and other
rock-clinging organisms thrust high above the water level.
The prospector Cox further described the big earthquake:
"The ground (was) cutting some of the queerest capers imaginable.
In addition to the circular motion of the preceding heavy shock, it
was waving up and down like the swells of the sea, only with considerably
On glacial sands that often liquefy during a large earthquake, the prospectors
were lucky to survive the episode as natural forces ate their camp and
all their supplies.
"We ran from our tents, leaving everything behind, and were never
able to rescue anything from it after," prospector J.P. Fults said.
"Above us about 100 yards was a lake.This lake broke from its bed
and dashed down upon our camp while we ran along the shore and escaped
its fury. This deluge was almost immediately followed by one from the
sea. A wall of water 20 feet high came in upon the flood from the lake
and carried all debris back over the undulating morianic hills.
"We protected ourselves from being carried away by tearing up clothes
and tying ourselves to the small alder trees growing on the mountainsides,"
The remarkable part of this story is that no one died despite the bad
placement of the miners. Tarr and Martin attributed the earthquake to
the impressive tectonic activity researchers today know as the Yakutat
Block crashing into southern Alaska, giving rise to the highest coastal
mountain range on Earth.
"The cause of these shocks was undoubtedly the renewal of growth
in the St. Elias Range, one of the youngest and loftiest of mountain
ranges," Tarr and Martin wrote.
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.