Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Mississippi Earthquake of 1931

Shortly after 2 a.m. on December 16, 1811, much of the mid-south was hit by a massive earthquake. Centered near New Madrid, Missouri, the shocks were so violent that people in far-distant Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were awakened from their sleep and the tremors caused church bells to ring along the East Coast of the United States. In Savannah, Georgia, the trembling lasted about one minute, and according to a newspaper sounded like "a carriage passing over a paved path way." Closer to the epicenter, in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, the earthquake did much more than simply wake people up. Throughout portions of Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee, in fact, the devastation was significant and the tremors were even felt inside Mammoth Cave. With several aftershocks in the coming days, the New Madrid earthquake was so powerful that the Mississippi River flowed backwards. Along the rivers, islands disappeared and large fissures produced giant waves which capsized boats, drowning an unknown number of people. At Vicksburg, banks of earth crashed into the river and the earthquake in places changed the course of the Mississippi, creating, among other things, Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. 

Although the population in 1811 – at least among whites – was not great in the affected area, the quake certainly left an impression on those who experienced it firsthand. According to an eyewitness account in Missouri, “The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do—the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species—the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi...formed a scene truly horrible.” After the earthquake, many people believed that a comet seen before the quake had been a sign. Others, according to a Lexington, Kentucky, newspaper, reported that the calamity had been “foretold by the Shawanne [sic] Prophet, for the destruction of the whites.” If Tecumseh had anything to do with the earthquake, of course, it ultimately did little to stop the flow of white settlers into the region. While precise measurements had not yet been invented, the New Madrid earthquake is estimated to have been approximately 8.9 on the Richter Scale, easily among the most powerful to hit North America. In Mississippi, the effects of the New Madrid quake were less severe. 

Exactly 120 years later – on December 16, 1931 – Mississippi experienced the most powerful earthquake in the state’s recorded history. The earthquake occurred at 9:36 p.m. and measured between 4.7 and 5.0 of the Richter Scale. The epicenter of the earthquake was in Charleston, in Tallahatchie County, but the shock was felt over a 65,000 square mile area throughout north Mississippi and parts of Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. Reporting on the event the next day, the editor of the Mississippi Sun newspaper in Charleston described the earthquake as “a deep, undefinable rumble like heavy trucks bumping over an uneven highway, accompanied by a heavy rattling of windows and doors.” According to W.L. Kennon, who was the physics and astronomy professor at University of Mississippi at the time, the tremors were the strongest felt in Oxford in more than twenty years. Minor damage was reported in Belzoni, Water Valley and Tillatoba, mostly limited to fallen chimneys or broken dishes. In Charleston, the most serious damage was to the Tallahatchie Agricultural High School. 

Built in 1917, the Tallahatchie Agricultural High School was one of a number of similar schools constructed in Mississippi in the early years of the 20th Century. The campus was comprised of three main buildings, including an administration building and two dormitories, all equipped with steam heat, electric lights and "sanitary closets," plus a full complement of farm buildings for hogs, cows and chickens. The first principal of the school (and one of the agricultural teachers) was Avery Benjamin (A.B.) Dille. Dille (left) played football at Mississippi A&M and earned a letter in 1910 as a halfback. From 1914 to 1916, he taught in the agricultural department and was the head football coach at Mississippi Normal College (now the University of Southern Mississippi), where he compiled a record of six wins, ten losses and one tie. In 1916, Dille’s team went 0-3, losing by a combined score of 193-0 to Meridian High School, Mississippi College and Spring Hill in Mobile.* After the 1916 season, the football program was suspended, not because of the losses but because of World War I and Dille took the job at Tallahatchie AHS the next year. A.B. Dille died in 1964 and is buried in Adams County. Engraved on his tombstone is the following inscription: "Athlete, Teacher of Our Youth, Devoted Husband and Father, Herdsman and Tiller of the Soil, Friend to All Mankind, Servant of The Lord." 

Like other agricultural high schools, the Tallahatchie AHS was a boarding school and offered a full curriculum of academic courses in addition to training in agriculture and home economics, all designed "to improve and uplift the rural life, to lessen drudgery, to increase comforts, to make more attractive the home and the school and to lead in the development of a sufficient and satisfying country civilization." Students enrolled were expected to work on the school's farm and in the upkeep of the school and, interestingly, had uniforms. Much like the modern debate over school uniforms, the school required them in order to "do away with any class distinction that might exist because of different financial circumstances of parents." Girls at Tallahatchie AHS wore plain white dresses in warm months and plain dark dresses during the winter, while boys were expected to wear overalls and have "one nice suit, properly cared for" for the whole year. In its catalogue, the school made clear to parents that "the wearing of extra fine and expensive clothing of any kind will not be allowed." In addition to academics, students were also expected to attend some church and Sunday School each week and were required to participate in devotional periods each morning. The religious instruction was necessary, according to the school's catalogue, since "no training is complete unless the head, the hand and the heart are trained." Tuition for the school was free to any students from Tallahatchie County and very affordable for those outside the county (in 1920 it was $2 per month). Boarding fees were based on how much food, heat, etc. were used by the students, with the cost divided equally among all boarders. 

As a result of the 1931 earthquake, the Tallahatchie AHS suffered more extensive damage than other buildings in the area, including cracked walls and foundations and several toppled chimneys. No students were injured in the disaster, however, as there were no students left at the school. In fact, the Tallahatchie Agricultural High School had already been closed because of another, much more cataclysmic event: the Great Depression. As a self-supporting school, parents simply could no longer afford even the modest fees and financial support from the Federal and state governments had dried up. In place of the students, the WPA established an office in the former administration building and over time the dormitory buildings were lost. The administration building still stands and is now the Newsome Funeral Home (above) in Charleston. 

The 1931 earthquake might have been the strongest thus far in Mississippi but it was certainly not the last. In 1955, for example, there was a seismic event on the Gulf Coast, shaking houses and rattling windows along a thirty-mile-wide strip and in 1967 two earthquakes were centered near Greenville. While tornadoes, hurricanes and floods account for most of the natural disasters in Mississippi, the reality is that tremors occur here on a frequent basis. Though widespread damage from an earthwork might seem unlikely, it would be wise to remember that there is danger lurking just beneath the surface.

Although only three games are listed officially, there were apparently other games scheduled but not played in 1916 and at least one scrimmage against Ole Miss. That game, against an established powerhouse, was a narrow 13-7 loss for Mississippi Normal. Unfortunately, the football media guide for USM incorrectly lists Coach Dille’s name as “Dillie.” 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Savannah newspaper:
(2) New Madrid:
(4) Dille:
(5) Tallahatchie AHS:
(6) Students:
(7) Newsome Funeral Home:

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