Saturday, February 11, 2023

Some History of Niagara County Earthquakes

 If you felt the earth move under your feet the other day, you were not alone. The largest earthquake to strike Western New York in four decades occurred Monday morning. In my own experience, I thought a truck had hit the pothole in front of my house at a faster than posted speed. My wife had just gotten out of bed to get ready for work and I was about back to sleep when I felt the front of the house shake. I thought to myself that whatever truck went by, they were really moving fast. If you happen to have a pothole very near your house, you know what I mean about trucks making the house shake if they hit the crumbling pavement just right.

There are a system of fault lines in Wyoming and Genesee Counties, known as the Clarendon-Linden Faults. They run from near Arcade, northward through Attica and Batavia, to Lake Ontario. To the west, is the Tonawanda Creek Fault. Scientists have determined that Western New York is crisscrossed with numerous faults. Most of them only periodically have activity, so there’s no need to rush off in a panic. However, the potential of a large trembler is definitely present, and would likely cause more damage than a California quake simply because the area is not as prepared for it.

Many of the earthquakes occurring here are barely felt, if at all. Likewise, much of the seismic activity can be traced to the constant thundering of water hammering the bedrock as it plunges over the crest of Niagara Falls. The remnants of the last Ice Age still have lasting impacts on the area. Sometimes the moving of the earth here has to do with post-glacial rebound (glacial isostatic adjustment).  The weight of the ice on the land depressed the land beneath it. After the glaciers retreated, the land bounced back. This rebound is still happening, resulting in some of the quakes in the area.

While there have only been occasional earthquakes on the Niagara Frontier, there are several examples of tremors striking here. One of the earliest records of an earthquake in Niagara County comes from the Niagara Sentinel on July 25, 1823:

 A shock of an earthquake was felt in this village on the 23rd, instant, about 11 o’clock in the evening. The concussion seemed to be undulatory and continue for about five or six seconds with considerable violence, causing much jarring of crockery and furniture, and was followed by a rumbling noise similar to that of a wheeled carriage driving with great speed over a log bridge or causeway. 

A larger quake struck in August 1879 when the Lockport Journal reported that moving earth could be felt “perceptibly on Pioneer Hill and along the heights.” Houses built on the bedrock here shook, and some of the residents feared that their homes could have toppled.

The year of 1897 was especially active seismically with several occurrences throughout the year. At 10pm on March 5th, 1897, Niagara Falls was shaken “severely by a well defined earthquake.” Lockport and Tonawanda did not feel it, but “the country for miles about between here and Lake Ontario was startled by the sudden shock. Below the Mountain Ridge it was felt worst. On the Indian Reservation the Indians were all alarmed.”

At the end of May, the whole area felt another shock. This time, it was felt as far away as Vermont and Montreal.  The Niagara Gazette from May 28th reported:


The quake was distinguishable here in Niagara Falls, though the shock was slight. At LaSalle the residents report feeling the shock quite plainly, even more so, according to all accounts, than was felt here. The shock seemed to increase in violence as the reports reached closer to Buffalo, and there in the theaters the audience seemed to notice the trembling swaying motion with startling distinctiveness, while in the large flats and business blocks the people were quite alarmed.

The Lockport Daily Journal of the same date reported the quake from that city’s point of view, including a reader’s eyewitness report of the effects at his home:


Lockport’s boast has been that she is free from tornados, cyclones, and earthquakes. But Lockport cannot make that boast in its entirety any longer. The city was visited last night about 10:18 by an earthquake, the slight seismic disturbance lasting about 30 seconds. Few people noticed the succession of shocks which were severe enough in one instance, at least to waken a sleeper by the trembling of the bed. One who noticed the earthquake last night said:


“The phenomenon began with a slight tremor which increased in intensity until the building shook. The windows in my room shook and the inside blinds rattled. My wife and I were reading when the vibrations of the bed under us called our attention to the earth’s disturbance. The sensation was decidedly eerie for the successive jars were distinctly felt. It seemed that the foundations of the house were vibrating and moving quite violently. The blinds continued to rattle for what seemed over a minute but in reality the time could not have been over 30 seconds. We were both not a little alarmed.”

 The largest earthquake to strike Western New York occurred August 12, 1929 when a 5.2 shake (some sources say 4.8) struck near Attica. It was felt as far away as New Hampshire and Cleveland, but caused little real damage outside of fallen chimneys and cracked walls near the epicenter. The Niagara Gazette reported some partially collapsed chimneys in Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the Union-Sun & Journal stated that a “series of earth tremors at 7:25 this morning, that accompanied by a distinct sound of rumbling, lasting fully a minute.”

 September 20, 1946, another small quake struck, this time along a fault that runs from Welland, Ontario to Ransomville. Speculation years later once attempted to implicate this minor fault with the collapse of the Schoellkopf Power Plant in 1956, but it has not been conclusively proven. The claim was also made that this fault as well as the Clarendon-Lindon fault were part of the reasons why the Somerset Power Plant was not nuclear, although, again, this is speculation by the original author of the newspaper article.

 After a pair of small earthquakes several years ago, I reached out to the New York State Power Authority to determine whether the power reservoir or the power plants along the Niagara River were in any danger. Lou Paonessa, Community Affairs Director, assured me that “the Niagara Power Project has been designed to resist seismic loads.” He also declared, “There has been no association of seismicity to the reservoir or the operation of the Project. The Niagara Power Project is located in a relatively low earthquake area.”

 There are other procedures in place at the Niagara Power Project when earthquakes of at least 3.0 on the Richter scale strike within fifty miles of the site. All critical areas, including the reservoir, are inspected for any changes and damage that may have occurred. They also review all seismic activity every five years for any tremor within 125 miles. According to the USGS, from January 1, 2003 through October 1, 2008, there were eleven earthquakes in that radius of at least a magnitude of 2.5. Since July, 2017, there have been eleven earthquakes recorded in the Buffalo area, with only the February 6, 2023 shaker meeting the 3.0 magnitude requirement of site inspection at the Niagara Power Plant.

 The earth is always moving, even in Western New York. Most of the time, these small earthquakes are only felt by the ultra-sensitive machines. It makes headlines when we do have one that people can feel. They are so rare here. However, it’s sure to stick that old Carole King song into your head for a few days. Darn that earworm!

Craig Bacon is the Niagara County Deputy Historian and the City of Lockport Historian. He can be reached at the Niagara County Historians Office: (716)439-7324

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