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Forgotten earthquake shook Puget Sound 80 years ago this week

Depending on your age and on how long you’ve lived in the Puget Sound area, you likely can recall surviving as few as one or as many as three big earthquakes. For those who can’t forget these things, the dates are as easily to summon as the birthday of a loved one: February 28, 2001; April 29, 1965; and April 13, 1949.

But there’s a fourth tremor that perhaps a few can still recall, or maybe remember their parents or grandparents talking about it. That 1939 earthquake happened 80 years ago this week.

Like KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross, I was on the job when the February 2001 6.8 magnitude Nisqually Quake hit, minding my own business at the old Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in Montlake when the building started shaking.

The April 1965 6.5 magnitude quake is a little before my time, but Frosty Fowler told me his story, and my late father used to describe how he was on the fifth floor of the Municipal Building, and stood in a doorway with his fellow structural engineers and Building Department colleagues.

It was before my family came to Seattle, but my late mother-in-law was just a kid when she was home in Wallingford with her brother during the April 1949 earthquake. She used to tell me how their upright piano somehow broke loose in all that 7.2 magnitude shaking, and bounced across the living room, scaring her (and her cat) half to death.

I’d never heard of the November 12, 1939 quake until I stumbled across a reference to it while doing some other research in online newspaper archives. This long-ago earthquake hit very late on a Sunday night, about 11:47 p.m., so most people were home, and many were in bed. It shook so much, almost nobody slept through it.

Bill Steele is Director of Communications and Outreach for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington. He says the epicenter of what some people call the “Olympic Earthquake” or the “Puget Sound Earthquake” was north of the epicenter of the Nisqually Quake.

“Reports came in from all across Western Washington … actually down into Oregon. Salem, McMinnville, Portland, and all the way up to Blaine, and as far east as just west of Spokane,” Steele said by phone from his office last week. “So it really covered a very wide area.”

Newspaper accounts say it was also felt as far away as Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.

Steele says modern estimates are that the 1939 quake was a magnitude 6.2. He says it was pretty deep, and it shook for 20 or 30 seconds. Damage was minimal, and although there were fortunately no deaths or serious injuries, the tremor did make its mark 80 years ago.

“Auburn, Brooklyn, Centralia, Elma, Oakville, Olympia and Tacoma got ‘Intensity VII,’ and that’s where you expect to start seeing some damage, and indeed, there were pendulum clocks stopped and cracked plaster, and some damaged chimneys fell,” Steele said, referring to the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, which is used to measure the effects of a quake. “There was some damage in that region, but the rest of the state, including Seattle, [the effect] was more ‘Intensity VI’ and ‘Intensity V.’”

For reference, the Nisqually Quake measured 6.8, and the intensity was considered ‘VIII’ on the Mercalli scale. That quake, which took place in daylight and in an era of intense TV news coverage, was well-documented with footage of damaged buildings and interviews with people who lived through the shaking.

All over Seattle, according to 1939 newspapers, cracks in plaster, damaged chimneys and knocked-over knickknacks were about the worst of the damage. The City-County Building (now known as the King County Courthouse) and even the Smith Tower reported significant cracks in plaster, but no structural damage.

To better understand what happened 80 years ago, there isn’t much in the way of even still photographs to examine as there are for more recent seismic events.  However, a document published by the U.S. government in the early 1940s provides invaluable insight, with a long list of damage reports from the 1939 quake that were gathered in communities around the Northwest as part of a special survey.  Here’s a sampling:

Brooklyn (east of Raymond)

“Houses rocked as if being bent like a board. Direction of motion east-west. Two chimneys fell; a 14-inch pendulum clock stopped; clocks on north and south walls did not stop.”

Centralia

“Felt by all. East and west motion. All pendulum clocks facing north or south, were stopped. Chimneys fell. All were awakened. Slight damage.”

Port Gamble

“Felt by all. Pendulum clocks facing north were stopped.”

Potlatch (south of Hoodsport on the Hood Canal)

“Felt by all. Vases overturned; pendulum clocks facing west stopped. All awakened.”

Raymond (the area of town known as Eklund Park)

“Felt by nearly all. Fire bell in old fire hall was rung.”

Astoria, OR

“Felt by many. Overturned small objects. Clocks facing east were stopped.”

Seattle

“Felt by many. Plaster cracked; dishes broken; pendulum clocks stopped. Many awakened. Damage considerable.”

Kirkland

“Felt by all. Pendulum clocks facing west were stopped.”

Wollochet Bay (south of Gig Harbor)

“Felt by many. Trees and buildings swayed visibly. Pendulum clocks were stopped. Cattle frightened and pheasants crowed.”

A scientific journal article about the quake provides additional glimpses into what happened. The paper, called “The Olympic Earthquake of November 13, 1939,” was written by Howard A. Coombs and J.D. Barksdale, and published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in January 1942.

Coombs and Barksdale wrote:

“Many people in the Olympia, Seattle and Tacoma region reported noises attending the earthquake. It is interesting to note that the sounds were reported in terms of things with which the people were most familiar. At Dupont, Washington, the sound was a ‘explosion.’ In the Cascade Mountains at Packwood and Scenic the noises were like those of logging trains. Along the shores of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean the noises resembled a storm, or boats bumping against the wharves. Others described noises such as those of ‘gravel being dumped,’ A ‘furnace exploding,’ or a ‘big storm.’ The rattling of dishes was perhaps the most universal noise reported. At points more distant from the epicenter, such as Leavenworth and North Head, the sounds were described as those of “rushing winds.” The phenomena of the ‘rushing winds’ are remarkable since the night was extremely calm.

The most severe damage was in Centralia, Elma, and Olympia, where some chimneys were broken, plaster cracked, and various objects overturned. Other small areas of heightened intensity were in Tacoma, Auburn, Kent, and Port Orchard. Further from the epicenter, the damage was slight although peculiar effects of the earthquake were observed. The falling of a 200-pound piece of terra-cotta from a building in Tacoma was given much publicity. The cornice had been fastened to two buildings and differential movement probably loosened it.”

Though it was almost midnight on a Sunday when the shaking started, Bill Steele says that not everybody was tucked in for the night.

“There was kind of a bit of a panic as people raced out of movie theaters and some folks almost got trampled,” Steele said. “There were some injuries when people are trying to leave movie theaters, apparently, so there was a little bit of panic in some areas both in Olympia and in Seattle.”

One of theaters where this panic was documented by The Seattle Times was the Liberty at First and Pike. The film was the 10:00 p.m. showing of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. With a newsreel and a cartoon likely part of the bill, it’s hard to say at what point in the heartwarming action the two-hour and 10-minute film was interrupted by the shaking.

Newspaper accounts from the day after the quake also include stories about downtown Seattle hotels including the Frye and the Olympic, where panicked guests came down to the lobby in their pajamas and robes, and desk clerks and bellhops served hot coffee to calm shaken nerves.

One of the most fascinating bits of tangential information in The Seattle Times of November 13, 1939 was that eight women were on duty at the newspaper’s switchboard – on a Sunday night – when the quake struck. Between them, they answered 2,500 calls in the hour after the tremor.

Try getting a human being to answer a phone anywhere (other than 911) on a Sunday night in 2019.

But don’t even count on getting through to 911 when the “Big One” strikes, as it’s bound to do sometime.

“Every 20 years or so, on average, we’ve had a magnitude 6 or greater deep earthquake, but we haven’t had the big crustal one that really knocks buildings down,” Steele said. “That will be in our future sometime, hopefully not soon. But we need to prepare for those as well.”

Bill Steele says that one form of preparation already taking place is that new structures are all designed according to strict building codes that take seismic safety into account. But he also says there’s no seismic retrofit ordinance in Seattle for existing buildings, beyond having to secure ornamental elements that could fall into the street.

“We still don’t have a comprehensive [seismic ordinance] in Seattle, so we have a minor one to keep the parapets, which topple over readily in the street, to brace those, but we don’t have a requirement to retrofit the [whole] building,” Steele said.

This means that many areas of Seattle that have unreinforced masonry structures – known as “URMs” for short – are likely to suffer severe damage, if not total destruction, in a crustal quake. Neighborhoods including Pioneer Square, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, the University District and Ballard, which have some of the greatest concentrations of URMs in the city, are likely to be devastated by the next Big One.

The City of Seattle’s Department of Constructions and Inspections website says there are roughly 1,150 URMs in Seattle; roughly 10 percent of these have had some seismic retrofitting, mandated when building permits are sought for remodeling projects, or what are called “substantial alterations.”

Bill Steele says it’s not economically feasible for most property owners to fully retrofit URMs, because even with seismic upgrades, those old buildings are not likely to survive a crustal quake.

“[Seismic retrofitting] requires a lot of investment, and many of these buildings will be red-tagged after the earthquake anyway, [which means that] they [will] have to be torn down,” Steele said, referring to the term used by building inspectors once a structure is deemed beyond repair. “So for the building owner, there is no economic incentive, really, to retrofit the building. It’s a huge investment, and the return can be measured, I think, in saving lives, perhaps, and averting injuries, but they probably aren’t going to get their money back out of it … or maybe they will, I don’t know.”

“I think it’s an economic problem,” he added.

It’s disturbing to think about what a place like Pioneer Square or other culturally and historically significant parts of Seattle will look like after the “Big One” – a shallow crustal quake, not unlike what devastated Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011. Granted, the community will have plenty of more pressing transportation and infrastructure problems to deal with – and, of course, serious injuries to treat and loss of life to mourn – but to add to these woes the city’s most historic neighborhoods being wiped out, it’s a scenario that is hard to fathom.

On a lighter note, this radio station was on the air with something called “Musical Varieties” during the November 12, 1939 quake. Newspaper accounts from the next day report that an announcer named Allen Botzer stayed on the air to reassure KIRO listeners that the world had not ended.

KIRO offered a special program the night after the quake featuring Botzer and UW geologist Howard Coombs (author of the scientific article mentioned above), both being interviewed by program director Tommy Thomas. Botzer also went on to serve in the South Pacific in World War II, doing work for Armed Forces Radio. He then had a long career of nearly 40 years as an announcer at CBS-owned KNX Radio in Los Angeles. Botzer passed away in 1997.

If you have memories or remember hearing family stories about the November 12, 1939 quake, please send via email to [email protected].

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