On this day in 1909, people all across the state of North Dakota experienced a rare sensation for these parts—an earthquake. According to John Bluemle of North Dakota Geological Survey, it was “perhaps the most widely felt earthquake” in the state’s history. The tremor’s epicenter was near Avonlea, Saskatchewan, not far from where North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan intersect.
Some newspapers treated the event with alarm, while others found it humorous. The Beach (North Dakota) Advance headlined, “People Thrown Into Panic…Reports from thirty towns tell of violent tremors, but contain no account of casualties.” The fear is understandable—this was just three years after the great San Francisco earthquake.
Helena Montana reported, “The shocks here lasted several seconds and were distinctly felt throughout the city. The older houses in the town shook violently, people rushed from their homes into the streets in wild bewilderment and for a time it was feared that serious damage had been done.”
It was front-page news for The Dickinson Press, which reported under the headline “City Shaken…a very perceptible seismic disturbance was felt shortly after 9 o’clock Saturday evening. It was plainly observed by a large number and the two distinct shocks of several seconds duration caused a lot of excitement in many homes. Dishes rattled, houses shook and many were frightened.”
The Press continued, “People on the second story report the swaying of the walls. It was felt quite plainly in the Elk hall and other parts of the business section….Paul Koch tells of quite a little excitement at the German hotel on the South Side. His wife and daughter were alone in the kitchen when the dishes commenced to rattle. A second shock increased the noise and the dishes on a shelf were nearly knocked to the floor.”
The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican noted, “Fargo Felt the Earth Tremor…People on the south side, people in the business district, and people in the residence portion of the north side all have stated that they felt or heard something peculiar at that time. One woman on the south side was roused by what she thought was some one in the house. She distinctly heard a noise which seemed to come from the next room, as of a movement on the floor, but a thorough search showed that the room was empty.”
The Billings County Herald was less moved, reporting on page 4 that “Medora Wiggled.” Seizing the opportunity to boost the hometown, the editor wrote, “That Medora is the Hub of the Universe, is right in line with all the newest sensations, is made manifest by the fact that the denizens thereof enjoyed an earthquake Saturday evening at 9:05. Of course reports immediately began coming in from other towns that they, too, had quaked, but we claim the quake for our own local innovation, and that the others were but copies of it. The tremble did not treat all alike, in some houses stove lids rattled, walls creaked and pictures became almost animated; in others there was but a barely perceptible tremble, while still others noticed it not at all.”
John Bluemle notes that North Dakota is located in an area of geological stability and low earthquake probability. But news reports from May 15, 1909 prove we’re not immune to a little “wiggle” now and then.
Written by Russell Ford-Dunker
“Earthquake Felt Over Northwest” Beach Advance 21 May 1909, p. 2.
“City Shaken” Dickinson Press 22 May 1909, p. 1.
“Fargo Felt the Earth Tremor” The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican 17 May 1909, p. 8.
“Medora Wiggled” Billings County Herald 21 May 1909, p. 4.