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South American Cities Destroyed

( Originally Published 1906 )

Earthquakes Ravage the Coast Cities of Peru and the Neighboring Countries-- Spanish Capitals in the New World Frequent Sufferers—Lima, Callao and Caracas Devastated---Tidal Waves Accompany the Earthquakes—Juan Fernandez Island Shaken--Fissures Engulf Men and Animals—Peculiar Effects Observed.

THE discovery of America, in 1492, brought a great accession to the number of recorded earthquakes, as South and Central America and the islands near them have furnished almost innumerable instances of the phenomena.

The first of the known earthquakes in the western hemisphere occurred in 1530, and the Gulf of Paria, with the adjacent coast of Cumana, in Venezuela, was the scene of the catastrophe. It was accompanied by a great sea-wave, the tide suddenly rising twenty-four feet, and then retiring. There were also opened in the earth several large fissures, which discharged black, fetid salt water and petroleum. A mountain near the neighboring Gulf of Caracas was split in twain, and has since remained in its cloven condition.

The coast of Peru was visited by an earthquake in the year 1586, and again in 1687. On the first occasion the shock was accompanied by a great sea-wave eighty-four feet high, which inundated the country for two leagues inland. There was still another dreadful convulsion on this coast in 1746, when the sea twice retreated and dashed in again with a tremendous wave about eighty feet high, overwhelming Lima and four other seaports. A portion of the coast sank down, producing a new bay at Callas; and in several mountains in the neighborhood there were formed large fissures whence water and mud gushed forth. On May 24, 1751, the city of Concepcion, in Chili, was entirely swallowed up during an earth-quake, and the sea rolled over its site. The ancient port was destroyed, and a new town was afterwards erected ten miles inland. The great sea-wave, which accompanied this earthquake, rolled in upon the shores of the island of Juan Fernandez, and overwhelmed a colony which had been recently established there. The coast near the ancient port of Concepcion was considerably raised on this occasion, and the high water mark now stands twenty-four feet below its former level.

The coast of Caracas and the adjacent island of Trinidad were violently convulsed in 1776, and the whole city of Cumana was reduced to ruins. The shocks were continued for upwards of a year, and were at first repeated almost hourly. There were frequent eruptions of sulphurous water from fissures in the ground, and an island in the Orinoco disappeared.

Rihamba must have stood, it would appear, almost immediately over the focus of the dreadful earthquake of February 4, 1797. This unfortunate city was situated in the district of Quito, not far from the base of the great volcano of Tunguragua. That mountain was probably the center of disturbance, and the shock was experienced with disastrous effects over a district of country extending about 120 miles from north to south and about sixty miles from east to west. Every town and village comprehended within this district was reduced to ruins. The shocks, however, were felt, though in a milder form over a much larger area, extending upwards of 500 miles from north to south and more than 400 miles from east to west.

At Riobamba the shocks, which began at about eight o'clock in the morning, are said to have been vertical. Some faint idea may be formed of the extreme violence of this motion from the fact mentioned by Humboldt that the dead bodies of some of the inhabitants who perished were tossed over a small river to the height of several hundred feet, and landed on an adjacent hill.

Vertical movements, so powerful and so long continued, could not fail to produce an enormous displacement of the ground, and to be very destructive to all buildings which it sustained. The soil was rent, and, as it were, torn asunder and twisted in an extraordinary manner. Several of the fissures opened and closed again; many persons were engulfed in them; but a few saved themselves by simply stretching out their arms, so that, when the fissure closed, the upper parts of their bodies were left above the ground, thus admitting of their being easily extricated. In some instances whole cavalcades of horsemen and troops of laden mules disappeared in those chasms; while some few escaped by throwing themselves back from the edge of the cleft.

The amount of simultaneous elevation and depression of the ground was in some cases as much as twelve feet; and several persons who were in the choir of one of the churches escaped by simply stepping on the pavement of the street, which was brought up to a level with the spot where they stood. Instances occurred of whole houses sinking bodily into the earth, till their roofs were fairly underground; but so little were the buildings thus engulfed injured, that their inhabitants were able still to live in them, and by the light of flambeaux to pass from room to room, the doors opening and shutting as easily as before. The people remained in them, subsisting on the provisions they had in store, for the space of two days, until they were extricated safe and sound. With the majority of the inhabitants, however, it fared otherwise. The loss of life in the city, and throughout the district most convulsed, was enormous, 40,000 persons altogether having perished.

Of Riobamba itself the ruin was complete. When Humboldt took a plan of the place after the catastrophe, he could find nothing but heaps of stones eight or ten feet high; although the city had contained churches and convents, with many private houses several stories in height. The town of Quero was likewise entirely overthrown,

At Tacunga the ruin was nearly as thorough, not a building having been left standing save an arch in the great square, and part of a neighboring house. The churches of St. Augustin, St. Domingo, and La Merced were at the moment thronged with people hearing mass. Not one escaped alive. All were buried, along with the objects of their worship, under the ruins of their consecrated buildings. In several parts of the town and its neighborhood there were opened larger fissures in the ground, whence quantities of water poured forth. The village of St. Philip, near Tacunga, containing a school in which upwards of forty children were assembled at the time, disappeared bodily in a chasm. A great many other villages with their inhabitants were destroyed, by being either overthrown or engulfed.

Even at Quito, although so distant from the centre of the disturbance, a great deal of damage was done to the churches and other public buildings by the shock, several being wholly ruined. The private houses and other buildings of moderate height, however, were spared. The superstitious inhabitants of this fair city, having been greatly alarmed by an unwonted display of luminous meteors, had devoted the previous day to carrying in procession through their streets the graven images and relics of their saints, in the vain hope of appeasing divine wrath. They were doomed to learn by experience that these idols were powerless to protect even the consecrated edifices dedicated to their honor, and in which they were enshrined.

The Bay of Caracas was the scene of a dreadful earthquake in 1812. The city of Caracas was totally destroyed, and ten thousand of its inhabitants were buried beneath its ruins.

The shock was most severe in the northern part of the town, nearest to the mountain of La Silla, which rises like a vast dome, with steep cliffs in the direction of the sea. The churches of the Trinity and Alta Gracia; the latter of which was more than one hundred and fifty feet high, and the nave of which was supported by pillars twelve or fifteen feet thick, were reduced to a mass of ruins not more than five or six feet high. The subsidence of the ruins was such that scarcely a vestige of pillar or column could be found. The barracks of San Carlos disappeared altogether, and a regiment of infantry, under arms to take part in a procession, was swallowed up with the exception. of a few men.

Nine-tenths of the town was annihilated. The houses which had not collapsed were cracked to such an extent that their occupants did not dare to re-enter them. To the estimate of 10,000 victims caused by the earthquake, must be added the many who succumbed, weeks and months after-ward, for want of food and relief. The night of Holy Thursday to Good Friday presented the most lamentable spectacle of desolation and woe which can well be conceived. The thick layer of dust, which, ascending from the ruins, obscured the air like mist, had again settled on the ground; the earth-quake shocks had ceased, and the night was calm and clear. A nearly full moon lighted up the scene, and the aspect of the sky was in striking contrast with that of a land strewn with corpses and ruins.

Mothers might be seen running about with their children whom they were vainly trying to recall to life. Distracted families were searching for a brother, a husband, or some others relative, whose fate was unknown to them, but who, they hoped, might be discovered in the crowd. The injured lying half buried beneath the ruins were making piteous appeals for help, and over 2,000 were extricated. Never did human kindness reveal itself in a more touching and ingenious fashion than in the efforts made to relieve the sufferers whose cries were so heart-breaking to hear. There were no tools to clear away the rubbish, and the work of relief had to be performed with the bare hands.

The injured and the sick who had escaped from the hospitals were carried to the banks of the river Guayra, where their only shelter was the foliage of the trees. The beds, the lint for binding up wounds, the surgical instruments, the medicines and all the objects of immediate necessity were buried beneath the ruins, and for the first few days there was a scarcity of everything, even of food. Water was also very scarce inside the town, as the shock had broken up the conduits of the fountains and the upheaval had blocked the springs that fed them. In order to get water it was necessary to descend to the river Guayra, which had risen to a great height, and there were very few vessels left to get it in.

It was necessary, also, to dispose of the dead with all dispatch, and in the impossibility of giving decent burial to so many thousand corpses, detachments of men were told off to burn them. Funeral pyres were erected between the heaps of ruins, and the ceremony lasted several days.

The fierce shocks which had in less than a minute occasioned such great disasters could not be expected to have confined their destructive effects to one narrow zone of the continent, and these extended to a great part of Venezuela, all along the coast and specially among the mountains inland. The towns of La Guayra, Mayquetia, Antimano, Baruta, La Vega, San Felipe, and Merida were entirely destroyed, the number of deaths exceeding 5,000 at La Guayra and San Felipe.

In November, 1822, the coast of Chile began to be violently convulsed by a succession of shocks, the first of which was of great severity. The heavings of the earth were quite perceptible to the eye. The sea rose and fell to a great extent in the harbor of Valparaiso, and the ships appeared as if they were first rapidly forced through the water, and then struck on the ground. The town of Valparaiso and several others were completely overthrown. Sounds like those produced by the escape of steam accompanied this earthquake, and it was felt throughout a distance of 1,200 miles along the coast, a portion of which—extending to about too miles—was permanently raised to a height varying from two to four feet. At Quintero the elevation was four feet, and at Valparaiso three feet, but about a mile inland from the latter place the elevation was as much as six or seven feet; while the whole surface raised is estimated at nearly 100,000 square miles.

The year 1868 proved very disastrous in South America. On the 13th of August of that year a series of shocks commenced which were felt over a large extent of country, stretching from Ibarra on the northwestern border of Ecuador to Cabija on the coast of Bolivia, a distance of about 1,400 miles: The effects were most severe about the southern portion of the Peruvian coast, where the towns of Iquique, Arica, Tacna, Port Ilay, Arequipa, Pisco, and several others were destroyed, and in the northern parts of Ecuador, where the town of Ibarra was overthrown, burying nearly the whole of the inhabitants under its ruins. A small town in the same quarter, named Cotocachi, was engulfed, and its site is now occupied by a lake. The total loss of lives is estimated at upward of 20,000.

On May 15, 1875, earthquake shocks of a serious character were experienced over large areas of Chile. At Valparaiso the shock lasted for forty-two seconds, with a vertical motion, so that the ground danced under foot. Two churches and many buildings were damaged. Another earthquake occurred at Valparaiso, July 8, when there were six shocks in succession. The inhabitants took refuge in the streets, several people were killed, and much damage was done to property.

About the middle of May, 1875, a most disastrous earth-quake visited New Granada, the region of its influence extending over an area 500 miles in width. It was first felt perceptibly at Bogota; thence it traveled north, gaining intensity as it went, until it reached the southeast boundary line of Magdalena, where its work of destruction began. It traveled along he line of the Andes, destroying, in whole or in part, the cities of Cucuta, San Antonio, and Santiago, and causing the death of about 16,000 persons. On the evening of May 17, a strange rumbling sound was heard beneath the ground, but no shock was felt. This premonitory symptom was followed on the morning of the 18th by a terrific shock. "It suddenly shook down the walls of houses, tumbled down churches, and the principal buildings, burying the citizens in the ruins." Another shock completed the work of destruction, and shocks at intervals occurred for two days. "To add to the horrors of the calamity, the Lobotera volcano, in front of Santiago, suddenly began to shoot out lava in immense quantities in the form of incandescent balls of fire, which poured into the city and set fire to many buildings."

On the evening of April 12, 1878, a severe earthquake occurred in Venezuela which destroyed a considerable portion of the town of Cua. Immediately preceding the shock the sky was clear and the moon in perfect brightness. It lasted only two seconds, but in that- time the center of the town, which was built on a slight elevation, was laid in ruins. The soil burst at several places, giving issue to water strongly impregnated with poisonous substances.

The Isthmus of Panama was the scene of a succession of earthquakes in September, 1882, which, although the loss of life was small, were exceedingly destructive to property. On the morning of September 7, the inhabitants of Panama were roused from their beds by the occurrence of one of the longest and most severe shocks ever experienced in that earthquake-vexed region. Preceded by a hollow rumbling noise, the first shock lasted nearly thirty seconds, during which it did great damage to buildings. It was severely felt on board ship, passengers declaring that the vessel seemed as if it were lifted bodily from the sea and then allowed to fall back.

Its effects on the Panama railway were very marked. The stone abutments of several of the bridges were cracked, and the earthworks sank in half a dozen places. In other places the rails were curved as if they had been intentionally bent. Other shocks less severe followed the first, until at I1:3o, another sharp shock alarmed the whole city, and drove the inhabitants at once from their houses into the squares. This earthquake was also severely felt at Colon, where it lasted for fully a minute, moving many buildings from their foundations, and creating intense alarm. A deep fissure, 4C0 yards in length, was opened in the earth.

To what extent this tendency to earthquake shocks threatens the proposed Panama Canal, it is difficult to say. Beyond question a great earthquake would do immense dam-age to such a channel and its lock gates, but the advocates of the Panama route argue with apparent truth that even so it has a great advantage over the Nicaragua route. In the latter, volcanoes are numerous, and eruptions not infrequent. Lake Nicaragua itself, through which the canal route passes, has in it several islands which are but volcanic peaks raised above the water, and the whole region is subject to disturbances from the interior of the earth.

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