Many of us in the Santa Clarita Valley have experienced two major earthquakes in our lifetime — the Sylmar quake of February 9, 1971 and the Northridge quake on January 17, 1994. But none can compare with the "Big One" that occurred at Fort Tejon back in 1857.
The Sylmar Earthquake
The so-called "Sylmar" earthquake of 2-9-1971 was actually centered under Iron Canyon in the Sand Canyon area of the Santa Clarita Valley.
As a young child growing up in North Hollywood in the 1960s, I remember a number of smaller earthquakes which were actually rather "fun" to experience, watching the swimming pool sloshing around and feeling the mild undulating motions of the ground underneath. For me, all the fun ended in the early morning hours of February 9, 1971, when I and many others were jolted out of a sound sleep by a massive 6.6 magnitude earthquake.
Although it has been referred to as the Sylmar (or San Fernando) earthquake, the epicenter of this quake was actually in our neck of the woods, the Sand Canyon area. The Sylmar earthquake resulted in the collapse of a wing of Olive View Hospital, the loss of 49 lives in the collapse of the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando, the collapse of the just completed 5-14 interchange in the Newhall Pass, and a near catastrophic partial collapse of the Van Norman Dam which could have flooded the northern San Fernando Valley.
In total, 65 people were killed in the 1971 quake. I can't say that I've ever "enjoyed" an earthquake since then.
The Northridge Earthquake
You would think one major earthquake is enough for anyone's lifetime, but alas that was not to be the case. Two years later, I was vacationing in Mexico City, and was awakened yet again, this time by a 7-point earthquake centered in Puebla, Mexico. The hotel actually split in half. Being a quake veteran, I remained "brave and calm" while the other tourists ran wildly out of the building.
In 1991 I moved from the San Fernando Valley to the SCV, and these earthquakes seemed to follow me wherever I went. As if the third time were the charm, the 1994 Northridge earthquake rocked me out of a sound sleep on my couch in Newhall (yet again in the early morning).
This 6.7 magnitude shaker, with an epicenter at the intersection of Reseda Boulevard and Saticoy Street in Reseda, caused billions of dollars of damage throughout Los Angeles and Santa Clarita. Once again the freeway interchange in the Newhall Pass collapsed, causing months of traffic nightmares for SCV commuters. LAPD Officer Clarence Wayne Dean lost his life when he drove his motorcycle off of a collapsed freeway bridge; today the interchange is named in his memory. The largest death toll occurred at the Northridge Meadows Apartments, where 16 people were killed when the building collapsed.
The Big One: Fort Tejon
The enlisted men's barracks at Fort Tejon were destroyed and rebuilt after the 1857 earthquake.
These were big earthquakes, but they were not the "Big One." The last monster earthquake to occur in Southern California, dubbed the Fort Tejon Earthquake, took place at 8:20 a.m. on January 9, 1857, on the San Andreas Fault, which passes within 40 miles of the SCV.
Regarded as probably the largest recorded quake in California history — stronger even than the similar magnitude 1906 San Francisco earthquake — this 7.9 temblor ruptured 225 miles of the San Andreas Fault from Parkfield to Wrightwood. The epicenter was considered to be in the Parkfield/Cholame area (later the site of James Dean's fatal auto accident in 1955).
Thankfully, there was little loss of life due to the sparse population at the time. It is sobering to note that the modern-day towns of Frazier Park, Lancaster, Palmdale and San Bernardino would have been right on top of this mammoth shaker. The heaviest shaking and greatest damage occurred at Fort Tejon, which had just been established in 1854. Only two lives were lost in this quake.
Individual and Newspaper Accounts
In 2006, Scripps Institute Of Oceanography (U.C. San Diego) published "Reports of the Great California Earthquake of 1857," a compilation of newspaper and personal accounts of the quake.
In his official report from Fort Tejon, Lt. Col. E.F. Beale writes, "at about six o'clock this morning, the shocks of an earthquake commenced and have continued with more or less violence, at intervals of five or six minutes, up to this time. The destruction to property, both public and private, has been immense. Many of the buildings at this Post have been so injured as to be totally uninhabitable."
The Los Angeles Star newspaper of January 10, 1857, reported: "Yesterday morning, about half past 8 o'clock, a very severe shock of an earthquake was felt here, the vibrations continuing for fully two minutes. ... Doors were slammed to and fro, water was turned out of bowls and pitchers, and in the river the water rushed violently from one bank and then back again. ... It caused a general turn out, some rushing from their beds without stopping to dress."
Also reported in Harpers Weekly Journal of February 21, 1857: "At Fort Tejon and the Kern River district, the shocks were most disastrous, and had the country been thickly peopled, the consequences might have been fearful. The second shock at Fort Tejon was felt at half-past eight o'clock, and lasted from three to five minutes, resembling in sound the rumbling of a train of cars. Nearly all the buildings in the vicinity were seriously injured, and several narrow escapes are recorded. ... It is believed that the earthquake was more severely felt at Fort Tejon than at any other point in the State, and it will require much time and expense to repair the damage done."
One final thought. All of these quakes took place in the early morning hours, and all (except the Mexican quake) occurred in January or February. Coincidence? Have you updated your earthquake kit lately?