In the early morning hours of September 5, 1944, an Associated Press agent in Albany received information about an earthquake in northern New York. “Anybody killed?” he asked. When informed no one had been hurt, he showed little interest. Likewise, when the state geologist in Albany was notified that a whole lotta shakin’ was goin’ on, he said, “There is no need to be alarmed. It is improbable they [the quakes] will be anything but quite small.”
You win some, you lose some. In this case, both the reporter and geologist lost―big-time. They missed the call on what still stands as the most destructive earthquake in New York State history.
It is also southeastern Canada’s second-strongest quake in the past century, a result of the epicenter’s location just a few miles south of the US-Canada border, in the small community of Massena Center. (Massena Center is about three miles northeast of Massena in St. Lawrence County).
Plenty of temblors had been felt there in the past, but over a period of several days, the main quake and several to follow caused considerable destruction. I hesitate to call them aftershocks, which tends to downplay their significance. For those who experience them, aftershocks are best described as more earthquakes―just as alarming as the first, and sometimes as destructive.
The area’s rural nature helped limit the damage, but it was still substantial, particularly from Massena to Cornwall, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River’s northern shore.
At about 12:40 a.m. on September 5, 1944, a loud rumbling sound filled the air and the ground began to shake. It continued for more than a minute, toppling chimneys, cracking walls and foundations, and sending thousands of North Country folks into the street, many in their nightclothes.
Was there ample cause for alarm? Absolutely. Although they didn’t know it yet, Massena residents were at ground zero of a seismic event felt from Toronto to Montreal and Quebec City, and from Boston to New York City. Thoroughly shaken were Canada, from the border north to James Bay, and east to New Brunswick; the New England states; plus New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia.
Among those rattled inland were Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Thirty-two earthquake stations across North America, from Nova Scotia to California, recorded the event. Estimates varied widely, placing the affected area between 175,000 and 800,000 square miles. But by any measure, it was big.
Worse yet, it was just the beginning for the folks in the Massena area. At about 4:30 a.m., another quake struck, and just 20 minutes later, another big one. More shaking was felt, climaxed by a severe shaking shortly after 7 a.m. Through noon, smaller shocks were felt, keeping everyone’s frayed nerves on edge.
It had been a terrible night and a rough morning, but daylight revealed some comforting news. There were only two reports of minor injuries, one occurring in Cornwall, and the other near Massena (a few cuts from broken glass when a picture frame fell on a lady’s head).
The rest of the news wasn’t so good. As damage assessment continued on the New York side of the St. Lawrence, it was concluded that virtually every building in the area had been injured to some extent. The principal victims, as is so common in quakes of similar strength, were chimneys.
During the next several days, during which tremors were quite frequent, it was found that between 2500 and 3000 chimneys (about 90% in the area) were damaged, and the majority required a total rebuild. (Results were similar in Cornwall.) Many had broken off at the roof level, leaving several lower blocks intact, but a great number of those had been turned sideways, thus needing to be removed before rebuilding could begin.
Enormous resources were needed: bricks, chimney blocks, lumber for staging, and manpower with the necessary skills. Bricklayers and masons were in high demand but short supply. Chimneys were reported down across St. Lawrence County, plus at locations in Malone (35 miles east) and Fort Covington in Franklin County, and Keeseville (about 65 miles southeast) in Clinton County.
Reports came in from towns and villages nearby, confirming that tens of thousands of mirrors, picture frames, clocks, dishes, canned preserves, plaster walls, and other fragile items had been destroyed. The Massena Town Hall was badly damaged; town water pipes had been damaged but were quickly repaired; and many homes were in need of plumbing fixes. One school had 60 window lights broken and suffered severely cracked cement floors. And on it went, damage so widespread that the full extent would never truly be known.
The power of the tremors was brought home by reports from outside the area: chairs tumbled and water mains damaged at Plattsburgh; a broken window in Rochester; a hotel guest in Buffalo tossed from his bed; and countless stories of broken dishes and other household goods across New England.
A particularly curious effect was noticed in burial grounds. In Pine Grove Cemetery, more than 175 headstones were damaged, and stories were similar elsewhere. But it was the undamaged stones that attracted the attention of geologists, scientists, and curious onlookers. Many stones remained intact, but the vibrating of the earth had caused the stones to turn and rotate on their bases.
North of the St. Lawrence, in Canada, the stones turned counterclockwise, while south of the river, in New York, the stones turned clockwise. There were exceptions, but those were mainly in clusters of stones near trees. The same rotating effect was seen in still-standing remnants of chimneys. The effect was later attributed to the direction of tremor “waves.”
The earth itself performed some peculiar acrobatics, sending three geysers streaming into the air from fissures that opened on a farm north of Massena. After nearly 8 hours, the flow subsided, and sand came to the surface. Where drought conditions were ongoing, wells that had been dry were filled, and some overflowed, requiring piping to channel the water elsewhere.
Others went dry and remained that way. One farmer dumped 99 barrels of water in his well, hoping to draw from it as needed, but found it had all drained away. Town water supplies were opened to distressed farmers, who hauled more than 3 million gallons to feed animals and fill other needs. Three months after the earthquake, it was noted that one-fourth of the 4500 farms in the area were hurting for water. A call went out to well drillers to open 1000 new wells.
Structures built over underground areas of clay in the Massena area generally suffered lots of damage. A container of clay, if shaken vigorously, will tend to liquefy, and that’s the effect the earthquake had: buildings heaved, teetered, and groaned loudly as the mushy earth undulated below.
As in tremor-caused damage, the effects of the undulating ground were widespread and long-lasting. In 1946, scientists reported that “Changes in water levels were noted on stream gaging stations across New York to Long Island.”
When the quake first struck, many feared it was a surprise attack by the Germans. Remember, this was 1944, and just three months after the D-Day Invasion. American troops were entering the Rhine Valley, and at home, the Aircraft Warning Service had been disbanded in May after having watched for incoming German or Japanese planes since the Pearl Harbor attack three years earlier.
Surprisingly, this earthquake story brings home in a big way the difference between going to war today, as opposed to the years prior to 1950. In all wars during that time, ALL citizens were involved. There was rationing of many things, and designated days of no meat, no milk, no wheat, no bread, and all sorts of similar sacrifices shared by the entire population so that the troops would have sufficient supplies. There were collections of rubber tires and many metals, to be recycled for the needs of war. Everyone followed the daily newspaper reports on the war more avidly than today’s lifelong Yankees or Red Sox fans follow their teams. There was a unity of purpose, and an understanding that part of “us” was in danger, fighting on behalf of the rest of “us.”
For that reason, on the day of the most intense earthquake in New York State’s history―a day when shocked citizens assessed the tremendous physical damage to thousands of homes and the loss of many valued personal items―the front page of the Ogdensburg Journal featured 14 stories on war-related happenings. The massive quake, leaving plenty of damage in Ogdensburg itself, was a page-three story.
What a wonderful lesson in perspective.
Photos: A damaged living room in Massena; local advertisement shortly after the big earthquake