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Earthquakes And Volcanoes In Central America And Mexico

( Originally Published 1906 )

A Region Frequently Disturbed by Subterranean Forces—Guatemala a Fated City--A Lake Eruption in Honduras Described by a Great Painter—City of San Jose Destroyed—Inhabitants Leave the Vicinity to Wander as Beggars-Disturbances on the Route of the Proposed Nicaraguan Canal—San Salvador is Shaken—Mexican Cities Suffer.

CENTRAL AMERICA is continually being disturbed by subterranean forces. Around the deep bays of this vast and splendid region, upon the shores laved by the waters of the Pacific, and also about the large inland lakes, rise, like an army of giants, a number of lofty volcanoes. Whilst most of them are wrapped in slumber which has lasted for centuries, others occasionally roar and groan as if in order to keep them-selves awake, and to watch well over their sleeping companions. The fire which consumes their entrails extends far beneath the soil, and often causes it to tremble. Three times within thirty years the town of Guatemala has been destroyed by earthquakes, and there is not in all Guatemala, Honduras, or any other state of Central America a single coast which has not been visited by one or more violent subterranean shocks. When the earthquakes occur in remote regions, far from the habitations of men, in the midst of virgin forests, or in the vicinity of large lakes, they give rise to very singular phenomena.

In 1856, a painter, entrusted with an official mission in Honduras, witnessed an event of this kind, and though he sought to conceal his identity, he was generally believed to be Herr Heine, the well-known painter and explorer of Central America. Upon the day in question he was sailing across a large lagoon named Criba, some twenty miles broad, the weather being calm, and the sun shining brilliantly. After having secured his boat to the shore, he had landed at the entrance to a beautiful little village commanding a view of the plain dotted with houses and with stately trees. Upon the opposite shore extended the forest, with the sea in the far distance. The chief inhabitant of the village having invited Herr Heine and his companions to come in and rest, the whole party were seated beneath the veranda of the house, engaged in pleasant conversation. Suddenly, a loud noise was heard in the forest. The birds flew off in terror; the cocoanut palms bent and writhed as if in panic, and large branches of them snapped off; shrubs were torn up from the ground and carried across the lake. All this was the effect of a whirlwind traveling through space from south to north.

The whole affair lasted only a few seconds, and calm was re-established in Nature as suddenly as it had been disturbed. Conversation, of course, then turned upon the phenomenon just witnessed, and the natives maintained that atmospheric disturbances of this kind are the forerunners of severe earth-quakes or violent volcanic eruptions; some of them declaring that a disaster of this character had doubtless just occurred somewhere. The host, an elderly man much esteemed in the district for his knowledge, went on to describe many such catastrophes which he himself had witnessed. He spoke more particularly of the eruption of the volcano of Coseguina, in Nicaragua, which had been preceded by a fierce whirlwind, which had been so strong; that it carried pieces of rock and ashes to a distance of nearly a mile. The captain of a large sailing vessel had told him that upon the following day, when more than 100 miles from the coast, he had found the sea covered with pumice-stone, and had experienced great difficulty it threading a way for his vessel through these blocks of volcanic stone which were floating upon the surface like icebergs.

Everyone, including the European, had his story to tell, and while the party were still in conversation, a terrible noise like thunder was heard, and the earth began to quake. At first the shocks were felt to be rising upward, but after a few seconds they became transformed into undulations traveling northward, just as the sudden whirlwind had done. The soil undulated like the surface of a stormy sea, and the trees were rocked to and fro so violently that the topmost branches of the palms came in contact with the ground and snapped off. The traveler and his friends, believing themselves to be out of danger, were able to follow with ever-increasing interest the rapid phases of the disturbance, when a strange and alarming phenomenon attracted their notice.

"Our attention was called," relates Herr Heine, "to a terrible commotion in the direction of the lagoon, but I cannot express what I then saw, I did not know if I was awake or a prey to a nightmare; whether I was in the world of reality or in the world of spirits."

The water of the lagoon disappeared as if it were engulfed in a sort of a subterranean cavern, or rather, it turned over upon itself, so that from the shore to the center of the lake the bed was quite empty. But in a few moments the water reappeared, and mounting toward the center of the enormous basin, it formed an immense column, which, roaring and flecked with foam, reached so high that it intercepted the sun-light. Suddenly, the column of water collapsed with a noise as of thunder, and the foaming waves dashed toward the shore. Herr Heine and his companions would have perished if they had not been standing upon elevated ground, and, as it was, they could not restrain an exclamation of horror as they saw this mass of water, like solid rock, rolling along the plain, carrying trees, large stones, and whole fields before it.

"I saw all that without at first thinking of our own fate," recites Herr Heine, "and I think that the greatness of the peril which threatened the whole country made me indifferent as to the fate of myself and my companions. In any case, when I saw my familiar companion, Carib, nearly carried off, I remained indifferent, and it was only after two others of my followers, Manuel and Michel, had had very narrow escapes, that I succeeded in shaking off my apathy, and going to their assistance."

When the travelers, whose boat had disappeared, started for the town of San Jose, whence they had come in the morning, they were able to judge for themselves as to the extent of the disaster. All the country which they had passed through had been laid waste. Large masses of rock had been detached from the mountains, and obstructed the course of streams which had overflown their banks or changed their course. Whole villages had been destroyed, and in all directions arose the lamentations of the unfortunate inhabitants. The region over which the waters of the lagoon had been carried was no longer to be identified as the same, covered as it was with debris of every kind, and with a thick layer of sand and rock.

When they started in the morning, the travelers had left San Jose prosperous and full of cheerful stir, but when they returned at night they found it in ruins and almost deserted The earthquake had overthrown all the houses with the exception of about twenty, and these were very badly damaged.

All the buildings in solid masonry, including the massive church, were heaps of ruins; and most of the inhabitants had perished. The Indians who were prowling in the outskirts of the town took advantage of the catastrophe to carry off all they could from the houses which were still standing and from the ruins of the others. The agility with which these Indians move about among the ruins and escape the falling walls is something wonderful, and they never hesitate to risk their lives for a very trifle.

In Central America disasters of this kind invariably cause many of the inhabitants to emigrate. Men, women, and children form themselves into groups, and travel through the country. They set the drama in which they have taken part to music, and they journey from one village to another, singing the rude verses they have composed,, and then sending the hat around. After they have visited the whole of their own country, they cross into the neighboring state, where they are also assured of a profitable tour. Thus for more than a year Honduras and Nicaragua were visited by bands of homeless victims, chanting in monotone the eruption of Lake Criba and the terrible catastrophe of San Jose.

The western half of Nicaragua, including the basin in which lie Lakes Managua and Nicaragua, is a volcanic center, including some of the largest of the twenty-five active cones and craters of Central America. Stretching from northwest to southeast, the string of craters beginning with Coseguina and Viejo reaches well into the lake basin. At the northern end of Lake Managua stands Momotombo, while from the lake itself rises Momotombito. On the northwestern shore of Lake Nicaragua lies the volcano Mombocho, while between the two lakes is the volcano Masaya. Near the center of Lake Nicaragua are the two volcanoes of Madera and Omotepe.

Since 1835 there have been six eruptions in Nicaragua, one of them, in 1883, being an outbreak in the crater of Omotepe in Lake Nicaragua, the route of the proposed Nicaraguan canal. The Coseguina eruption, the uproar of which was heard more than 1,000 miles away, threw the headland upon which it stands 787 feet out into the sea,-and rained ashes and pumice-stone over an area estimated at 1,200,000 square miles.

Like all Spanish towns in America, San Salvador, capital of the republic of that name, covers a large area in proportion to its population. The houses are low, none of them having more than one story, while the walls are very thick in order to be capable of resisting earthquakes. Inside each house of the better class is a courtyard, planted with trees, generally having a fountain in the center. It was to these spacious courtyards that, in 1854, many of the inhabitants of San Salvador owed their lives, as they found in them a refuge from their falling houses. On the night of April 16, the city was reduced to a heap of ruins, only a single public building and very few private ones having been left standing. Nearly 5,000 of the inhabitants were buried in the ruins. There was a premonitory shock before the great one, and many took heed of its warning and escaped to places of safety, otherwise the loss of life would have been even more terrible.

Guatemala was visited with a series of almost daily tremors from the middle of April to the middle of June, 1870. The most severe shock was on the 12th of June and was sufficiently powerful to overthrow many buildings.

The republic of San Salvador was again visited by a great earthquake in October, 1878. Many towns, such as Incuapa, Guadeloupe, and Santiago de Marie, were almost totally destroyed, and many lives were lost. The shock causing the most damage had at first a kind of oscillatory movement lasting over forty seconds and ending in a general upheaval of the earth; the result being that solid walls, arches, and strongly braced roofs, were broken and severed like pipe-stems. In the vicinity of Incuapa a number of villages disappeared entirely.

The mountainous region of Mexico is highly volcanic, and earthquakes are of frequent occurrence. Very few of them, however, in the historic period, have occasioned great loss of either life or property. One of the most disastrous occurred in January, 1835, when the town of Acapulco was totally destroyed. In April, ten years later, the City of Mexico was much shaken. Considerable damage was done to buildings, especially to churches and other edifices of large size, several of which were reduced to ruins. The loss of life was limited to less than twenty. Probably the most serious convulsion the country has experienced was in 1858, when shocks were felt over almost all the republic, causing' many deaths, and destroying much property. Over 100 people lost their lives on May 11 and 12, 1870, when the city of Oaxaca was visited by a succession of severe shocks, which tore down many buildings. Since this time Mexico has been free from convulsions of any great magnitude, although slight earth tremors are of frequent occurrence in different parts of the country.

Mexican volcanoes, likewise, are famous for their size, though of late years no great eruptions have occurred. There are many isolated peaks, all of volcanic origin, of which Orizaba, with a height of 18,314 feet, and Popocatepetl, 17,300 feet, the most renowned, are both active. The latter has one crater 5,000 feet in diameter. From the summit the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are both visible.

This crater has not erupted for many years, but in former times it threw its ashes a distance of sixty miles. One can descend into its depths fully 1,000 feet, and view its sulphur walls, hung with stalactites of ice, or see its columns of vapor spouting here and there through crevices that extend down into the interior of the earth. In the ancient Aztec and Toltec mythology of Mexico, this was the Hell of Masaya.

Nowadays great sulphur mines on the peak bring profit to the owners, and ice is quarried from the same vicinity to supply the neighboring city of Puebla.



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