For the past several months, the nerves of Manhattanites have been as rattled as the ground beneath their feet throughout an unusually long stretch of noticeable earthquakes.
The largest temblor in the sequence, measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale, struck Saturday evening, but it wasn’t the last felt by some residents. As of press time, the latest quake detectable to humans – a 2.8 – was recorded as recently as 4:18 a.m. on Tuesday.
The latest episodes are the most recent in a string of seismic activity that began last September, and are caused by slippage in a buried fault west of Manhattan, north of Interstate 90 and south of the Gallatin River, according to Mike Stickney, director of the Earthquake Studies Office at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in Butte. But while the activity is unusual, he said it is not originating from the same place where a devastating and far more memorable earthquake shook Manhattan and vicinity on another summer Saturday evening 94 years ago.
The epicenter of the June 27, 1925 temblor was in the Clarkston Valley, about 10 miles northeast of Three Forks. At magnitude 6.75, it was more than 100 times stronger than the one that residents felt this past Saturday. The quake struck at 6:23 p.m., and together with a large aftershock that occurred less than an hour later, it crumbled buildings throughout the area, including in Manhattan, Three Forks, Logan, Trident and White Sulphur Springs.
Around the nation in the days following the June 1925 catastrophe, people read in an Associated Press report that “panic resulted in practically every city in Western Montana,” that “pavements and buildings were cracked in many cities,” and that “three landslides were reported to have hemmed in as many passenger trains loaded with vacationists.”
Those reports weren’t exaggerated. As recounted by Phyllis Smith in her 1996 history of Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, “the quakes severely damaged school and church buildings in Three Forks and Manhattan. Brick chimneys twisted and fell; church bells swung to and fro, ringing wildly. Telephone lines went down.
“Those who were on the streets said later that the roads moved in waves like water,” the narrative continued. “The Milwaukee Road tunnel just east of Lombard collapsed.”
According to an article in the Aug. 5, 1971 edition of The Gallatin County Tribune and Belgrade Journal, “The fact that there was no loss of life or injuries to passengers and train crews in the canyon has been described as a miracle, for many trains daily passed over the railroad in that sector at that time.” The article tells about the rocks, weighing between 1 and 15 tons, that fell onto the tracks between Lombard and Three Forks.
“Two steam shovels, bridge material, camps for five hundred men and all necessary equipment were ordered forward without delay, and inside of forty-eight hours, the lines were run for an 1880 foot shoo-fly with a sixteen degree curve around the spur of the mountain,” it said.
A Bozeman Chronicle story from 1925 reported that Milwaukee trains were routed through Bozeman over the Northern Pacific Road. The article estimated that property damage throughout the Gallatin Valley might be as high as $500,000.
The public fiscal implications were significant. An article in the book, “Manhattan Omnibus: Stories of Historical Interest of Manhattan and Its Surrounding Communities” recounts how school officials from Three Forks, Manhattan, county and the state scrambled to find funds to rebuild five damaged school buildings in Gallatin County. In mid-July, the Gov. John Erickson announced a fund drive through which he believed citizens would give generously to help “children of school age.”
“Apparently the subscriptions drives did not raise much money,” the book states. “In August, the Manhattan paper stated: ‘It seems that the well-to-do and the able are either making small donations, or none at all ...’ ”
Instead, several boxing matches held in the school gym in Manhattan “saved the day,” according to the book. The bloody but entertaining matches drew good crowds, and school reconstruction was completed by the end of the September.
Almost a century later, residents who are far too young to have experienced or remember the 1925 quake may be wondering whether the shaky ground portends another significant event, even though both the 1925 quake and the recent episode near Manhattan are happening in different faults. According to Stickney, it’s impossible to say.
“There is no way of telling if this is leading up to anything larger,” he said. “There is no reason to think so, but earthquakes are unpredictable. It’s a warning to be prepared for more, even though we can’t predict them.”
Stickney suggests that those interested in keeping up with what’s happening beneath their feet check usgs.gov for current seismic activity. And those who wish to share their own experiences may report them on the “Did You Feel It?” page at https://earthquake.usgs.gov/data/dyfi/ . Over 800 people reported feeing Saturday’s earthquake, Stickney said, but only a handful reported that they noticed the smaller tremor on Tuesday morning.