The Last Big One: Accounts from 1857
Santa Barbara Gazette, January 22, 1857
Two companies of U. S. troops, who had just arrived from New Mexico, were having their horses herded in Kern river valley. When the shock occurred, the men in charge were around their camp fires in the morning. It very unceremoniously tipped over their coffee pots, their camp kettles, and themselves also. Upon looking at the river, they were astonished to see Kern river running upstream. Large trees were uprooted, and in the language of some who were thar, "all creation seemed to be going into one eternal smash." The water in Tulare Lake was upheaved to an unknown height, and large quantities of fish were thrown upon its banks, where they have remained.
Reminiscence by John Barker, near Tulare Lake, ca. 1904?
... There was a keen frost, and when we reached the water-hole a thin film of ice was seen upon the water. I dismounted and led my horse by the bridle, and walked to the edge of the water. Just as I reached it, the ground seemed to be violently swayed from east to west. The water splashed up to my knees; the trees whipped about, and limbs fell on and all around me.
I was affected by a fearful nausea, my horse snorted and in terror struggled violently to get away from me, but I hung to him, having as great a fear as he had himself. Of course, all this occupied but a few seconds, but it seemed a long time to me.
The lake commenced to roar like the ocean in a storm, and, staggering and bewildered, I vaulted into the saddle and my terrified horse started, as eager as I was to get out of the vicinity. I found my friend, who had not dismounted, almost in a state of collapse. He eagerly inquired, while our horses were on the run and the lake was roaring behind us, "What is this?" I replied, "An earthquake! Put the steel to your horse and let us get out of this!" and we ran at the top of our speed for about five miles.
We observed several hundred antelopes in a state of the wildest confusion and terror. They ran hither and thither, creating a great dust, stumbling and falling over each other in mortal fear....
We returned next day and found that the lake had run up on the land for about three miles. Fish were stranded in every direction and could have been gathered by the wagon-load. The air was alive with buzzards and vultures eager for the feast, but the earth had acquired its normal condition.
We can only imagine what the consequences would have been if a great city had stood upon the eastern shore of the lake.
Click on a location below to view more first-hand accounts of the 1857 earthquake.
For the original sources of these accounts, please click here.
Several maps show the above locations.