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New England's 5 Major Earthquakes

Small earthquakes, including the ones so small they typically can't be felt, occur across every inch of the planet every day. New England has felt over 1,000 earthquakes over the last 400 years. Larger earthquakes, on the other hand, are more rare. These quakes are typically associated with fault lines. There are no active fault lines near New England. This may lead some to believe that this region is safe from powerful, damage inducing earthquakes. This is not true, however. Several notable earthquakes, magnitude 5 or higher, have rocked the region throughout history.

1638: The Great Colonial Quake

The very first major earthquake in New England history was also the most powerful. This quake struck on June 1, 1638 in central New Hampshire, south of Lake Winnipesaukee. The magnitude of this quake has been estimated at 6.5 (+/- 0.5) on the Richter Scale. The quake has been given an intensity rating of IX on the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, which is considered violent.

The description of an intensity IX earthquake says: "Damage is considerable in specially designed structures. Damage is great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings are shifted off foundations." There are several recovered accounts of this event. Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, who kept detailed records of weather events in New England during the 1630s and 1640s, wrote this about the quake:

"Between three and four in the afternoon, being clear, warm weather, the wind westerly, there was a great earthquake. It came with a noise like a continued thunder or the rattling of coaches in London, but was presently gone. It was at Connecticut, at Narragansett, at Pascataquack, and all the parts round about. It shook the ships, which rode in the harbor, and all the islands, etc. The noise and the shakings continued about four minutes. The earth was unquiet twenty days after, by times."

William Bradford, governor of Massachusetts' Plymouth Colony wrote:

"This year, about the first or second of June, was a great and fearful earthquake. It was in this place heard before it was felt. It came with a rumbling noise or low murmur, like unto remote thunder. It came from the northward and passed southward; as the noise approached nearer, the earth began to shake and came at length with that violence as caused platters, dishes and suchlike things as stood upon shelves, to clatter and fall down. Yea, persons were afraid of the houses was very terrible for the time, and as the men were talking in the house, some women and others were without the doors, and the earth shook with that violence as they could not stand without catching hold of the posts and pales that stood next to them. And about half an hour or less came another noise and shaking, but neither so loud or strong as the former..."


Nearly 90 years after the great 1638 earthquake, a 5.6 magnitude struck, with an epicenter near the coast along the New Hampshire and Massachusetts border. The quake struck late at night on October 29, jolting sleeping residents out of their sleep. The Weekly News-Letter reported:

"It came with a loud noise like thunder. The earth reel’d & trembled to a great degree. The houses rock’d & crackl’d as if they were tumbling into ruins. Many of they inhabitants were wakened out of their sleep, with the utmost astonishment: and others affrighted run into the streets for safety."

Much damage was reported as a result of this earthquake. Numerous chimneys crashed down, brick houses were cracked, some were "shattered". A Nantucket resident jumped into his boat and paddled across the tumultuous ocean to mainland Massachusetts fearing the island would sink.

The quake left large cracks and fissures in the ground around modern day Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hampshire. In Newbury, Massachusetts, loads of sand were seen coming out of the newly formed cracks. Also in Newbury, it was reported that water boiled out of some of the crevasses like hot springs. These springs disappeared after a few weeks.

In some areas, the land was altered. Marshes were reported to have risen up, making them too dry for native marsh grass to grow in them. Wells were also greatly affected. Some wells reported improvements in water quality while others had to be abandoned due to a drop in quality.

1755: The Cape Ann Quake

On November 18, 1755, a powerful earthquake struck just offshore of Massachusetts, near Cape Ann. This quake was likely a 5.9 on the Richter Scale. This makes this earthquake the strongest in Massachusetts' history. Like 1727, this earthquake destroyed many chimneys and damaged brick homes, mainly in coastal communities of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

This quake is the closest a major earthquake has come to the city of Boston. Well over 1,000 chimneys in the city were damaged or destroyed. A handful of houses and churches were also damaged across Boston. Falling chimney bricks punched large holes in roofs.

Shaking was felt across the entirety of New England, with reports of damage as far as New Haven, Connecticut. The quake itself was felt as far away as South Carolina. Future president John Quincy Adams wrote this about the rumble:

"We had a severe Shock of an Earthquake. It continued near four minutes. I was then at my Fathers in Braintree, and awoke out of my sleep in the midst of it. The house seemed to rock and reel and crack as if it would fall in ruins about us. Chimnies were shatter’d by it within one mile of my Fathers house.”

The 1755 quake shared many characteristics and damage reports as the nearby 1727 quake. Large cracks were seen to open up in the ground. Some springs dried up while new springs emerged. A big difference between this quake and the 1727 quake (as well as all the three quakes here) is that this one was centered offshore. Being off the coast, the quake created a large wave that was reported in the Leeward Islands, about 1,000 miles away that lifted boats.


On March 21, 1904, the strongest earthquake in Maine's history stuck. This quake was centered near Eastport and was rated a magnitude of 5.9. Damage reports sound familiar to the others: broken chimneys and cracks in masonry walls across eastern Maine. The quake was felt across most of New England, with shaking reported in Connecticut.


The most recent major earthquake that has struck New England occurred in 1940 in central New England, this time north of Lake Winnipesaukee. This quake was actually two quakes, the first one striking on December 20 and the second on December 24. Both of the quakes were rated at 5.5 on the Richter Scale. The quake was rated at VII, or very strong, on the Modified Mercalli Scale.

After each quake, reports of damage included fractured pipes, cracked walls and fallen plaster. The quakes also tainted some water, turning the water in them brown. There was also a report of cemetery headstones being displaced near the epicenter. The earthquakes struck near the Ossipee Mountains, which are part of an ancient volcanic ring dike.



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