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The Great Lone Pine Earthquake

Geology students exploring earthquake escarpment in Lone Pine, Spring 2002

The Great Lone Pine


In the earliest hours of March 26,  1872,  while the majority of  San Franciscans were asleep in their beds, weather observer Thomas Tennant recorded a faint earthquake.  As time progressed it was realized that what Thomas had actually felt was an earthquake that may have been  equal or larger magnitude  than the devastating quake that would hit his own city 34 years later.  Ironically, days later,  the  San Francisco Real Estate Circular reported in an editorial "San Francisco is in very little more danger of a disastrous earthquake than the Eastern States of being flooded by a overflow of the Atlantic Ocean."  Reports were made of an earthquake awakening people as far south as San Diego, north to Red Bluff, and east to Elko, Nevada.


A Great & Noble Earthquake


Around 2:00 that same morning in March, John Muir was shaken out of his cabin near the Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley.  A glad and frightened Muir shouted out, "A noble earthquake!"  and chalked it all up as a great learning experience.  His neighboring Yosemite Valley residents were fearful, having heard state geologist Dr. Josiah Dwight Whitney's theories that the floor of the great valley had dropped down during some ancient cataclysm.  John Muir disagreed with Whitney's theory, and found the event to be an opportunity to prove otherwise.  In his book "Our National Parks" written in 1901, he describes "shocks so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered."  As he speculated that the Sentinel Rock rising three thousand feet above him would be shaken down, the silence that followed the first shockwaves was soon shattered by a roar as the Eagle Rock a distance away fell in to thousands of boulders.  The nearby  resident Yosemite Valley Indians were sure the angry spirits of the great rocks were trying to kill them.


For two months, John Muir reported trembling rocks.  He joked with neighbors "Come, cheer up; smile a little and clap your hands, now that kind Mother Earth is trotting us on her knee to amuse us and make us good."  A bucket of water was kept on his cabin table so he could study the movements.  He recorded the great changes in nature around him - rock avalanches,  driftwood, and leaves damned streams, reducing them to nothing in some places, causing them to roar in others.  Lake levels rose, meadows were smoothed, new meadows created.  Muir was comforted that "storms of every sort, torrents, earthquakes, cataclysms, convulsions of nature etc. however mysterious and lawless at first sight they may seem, are only harmonious notes in the song of creation, varied expressions of Gods love."


Shockwaves Across Owens Valley


The great forces that created a naturalist's wonder for John Muir and frightened his Yosemite Valley neighbors,  wreaked havoc on the lives of the residents of  Owens Valley where the geologic event had centered.  The night before the shockwave hit was described as  spring like and balmy, with bright stars shining in the clear dark skies overhead, until 2:30 AM.  For three minutes after that the earth rumbled.  As the hours progressed, the earth continued to shake on and off,  the next greatest shock recorded at 6:30 AM.  The military outpost of Camp Independence reported up to 200 tremors on through to

5:00 PM  the following afternoon.  By April 6th, the Inyo Independent Newspaper reported the earth was quieting down.  The shocks were dwindling from twelve to twenty hours apart .  The San Francisco Chronicle reported over a thousand shocks the first week alone. 


Camp Independence Crumbles


On January 24th residents of Owens Valley had been wakened in the night by a shake that caused no damage, and very little talk.  On March 17th, another was felt, but again little noted of it.  The seemingly never ending jolt of March 26th, however, would never be forgotten.  The sentries of Camp Independence found themselves to be immediately thrown to the ground.  As the earth trembled throughout the night, no one in camp could sleep.  Beds were pulled outside, campfires were relit.  Major Harry Egbert would later report that only Private J. Lutz and his wife, who was a laundress, were injured.   The surgeon's house, guard house,  mess hall, cook house, First Sergeant's house, storehouse, blacksmith's shop and two laundress quarters were almost completely destroyed.  These buildings, like so many others throughout the Owens Valley during this time period,  were of adobe bricks.  The barracks, commissary, storehouse, Post hospital and remainder of the officers quarters received enough damage to be deemed unsafe.  They too were of  adobe brick.  Broken timbers were used to build temporary shelters for troops and laundresses, and for cooking and dining.  Canvas structures were erected for the officers and their families.


Residents In Rubble


Outside of Camp Independence, the town of Independence itself was completely destroyed.  The houses, adobe like the military buildings, were gone.  One resident, Jacob Vagt, and his wife, found themselves completely covered by brick from their adobe.  Their baby was suffocated before they could rescue it from the fallen bricks, yet they themselves only suffered bruises and cuts. 


Near by Lone Pine, was the most severely devastated by the temblor.  All businesses and residences entirely built in adobe, were now piles of rubble.  The soldiers from Camp Independence had to dig for bodies.  Twenty-seven people were either killed instantly or died from injuries.  Dozens more suffered various injuries.  The Loomis brothers store was hit severely.  Rockwell Loomis was buried under the debris from the building that belonged to him and his brother, Albert.  A neighbor, William Covington, caught powder kegs just as a fire erupted nearby.  With the earth still shaking beneath him, Covington moved the kegs to safety, and continued digging to find Loomis.  Loomis lost an ear and most of his scalp.   Survivors continued on to rescue others.


John Mc Call of Lone Pine wrote a letter after the events  that told how he, his wife and little daughter were buried in ruins for an hour and a half.  Four feet of adobe piled on top of them.  They lived nearly a mile and a half from anyone else, and were almost dead when finally discovered and rescued. 


Mr. Burkhardt and his neighbor,  Mr. Lubken, could hear Mrs. Burkhardt screaming after their home collapsed, but there were no sounds of his son who was buried as well.  Burkhardt reportedly cried,  "The Old Lady's screaming, so she's all right.  Let her lay.  Well get the boy first."  Young Fred was dug out and revived, then Mrs. Burkhardt was retrieved undamaged.  Needless to say the poor woman was quite riled, in spite of her rescue,  because she had heard every word that her husband had said to his friend.


The San Francisco Chronicle reported the tragic death of Antonia Montoya, a young Mexican woman sharing her couch with a paramour.  When the shock hit they were both startled out of their sleep.  Antonia began screaming and praying.  The man jumped out of bed and leaped clear of the building as the roof and walls began to tumble down.  Unfortunately for Antonia, she was caught in the bed by the bricks and could only scream for help.  Her paramour never paused even for a moment to rescue her.  Sadly, Antonia, perished.


In Bishop Creek, the Inyo Independent wrote of the young Bishop Creek gentleman who was setting up with his young lady friend just as the shock hit.  She fainted into his arms and did not recover very quickly.  The next day the young man swore he would give  "$20 a shot for earthquakes when setting up with an offish gal."


Strange Phenomenon


The great Lone Pine Earthquake, appeared to be centered from Lone Pine to Big Pine.  Fissures in the earth had opened up, some with crevasses up to two hundred feet deep.  Both Lone Pine and Big Pine reported large fissures.  Stories were told of Owens River damming and its course changed, and new lakes, one of which is the present day Lake Diaz, were created.  At George's Creek the water burst from the ground and came up into a cabin that had no floor, flooding out the occupants.  A horses hoof was said to have protruded from the ground where another crack had opened then closed.  At Fish Springs, an ox was supposedly swallowed by the crack, his tail the only visible sign above the ground  that he had ever been there.  Nearby, another ox was found dead, probably from fright alone, as their was no sign of any injury.  Men camping near the river at the bridge south of Lone Pine were building a boat.  After the earthquake hit they said they saw fish thrown up on the banks because the water had disappeared.  They gathered up the fish and cooked them for breakfast, then continued on building their boat, even though they weren't sure there would be a need for one any more.  Many reports were made of streams of fire coming down the mountains, which turned out to be the friction from the rocks hitting each other during the motion of the earthquake.  Animals were heard making  strange noises in terror.  Horses ran off never to be found or perhaps disappeared into the large fissures in the ground.   Stories of phenomenon such as these were told throughout Owens Valley.  For weeks the earth gurgled and burped before slight tremors occurred, and sounds similar to a great blasting or heavy artillery fire was told of. 


Residents of Swansea stood on the shore of Owens Lake watching as the lake receded to the center of the lake bed like a tidal wave.  As they watched they were sure they would be drowned, but were too scared to move away.  As the water swept towards them about 200 feet, they were spared, and there was no damage.  Owens Lake was now shallower at Swansea Landing than at the opposite shore on the Sierra Nevada side of the valley.


Picking Up The Pieces


The total damages to Camp Independence was $26,000; for the entire Inyo county $237,000.  Most of that money was for Lone Pine which had an estimated $132,000 in damage.  As time went on, and more tremors occurred there was even more damage.  Various communities throughout California raised money.  The silver boom town of Cerro Gordo, high in the Inyo mountains overlooking Owens Valley, sustained little or no damage, but raised $800.00 to help their less fortunate neighbors.  In time Camp Independence, and  surrounding towns were restored.  Wood frame buildings sprouted where adobe walls had stood before the earthquake hit. 


By July 4th, of 1872 the people who were so devastated by natures shockwaves were moving on.  In addition to the usual Independence day festivities, there would be a boat ride on the great Owens Lake that had nearly swallowed up the town of Swansea only months before.   James Brady of the company at Swansea had built a steamboat and named it the Bessie Brady after his daughter.  Everyone that wanted to was formally invited to ride the steamboat across the lake and picnic at the landing afterwards.   Life was continuing  on in Owens Valley. 


Written by Cecile Page Vargo




     The Boys In The Sky Blue Pants

           Dorothy Clora Cragen

           Pioneer Publishing Company


      Deepest Valley:Guide toOwens Valley

              Owens Valley and Its Mountain Lakes

                    Roadsides and Trails

           Edited by Ginny Schumacher

           Sierra Club, San Francisco


      The Story of Inyo

          W. A. Chalfant

          Chalfant Press, Inc.


Thanks to the following websites:

Museum of the City of San Francisco

"Our National Parks" John Muir

For more info about Lone Pine & the earthquake visit:

For info about a possible haunting by earthquake victim: