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Think Minnesota doesn’t have earthquakes? Think again

Glassware rattled. A paint can fell off a ladder. No one was hurt.

he train depot in Staples, Minnesota in 1929.
The train depot in Staples, Minnesota in 1929.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The earthquake that rattled a large portion of central and northern Minnesota on September 3, 1917, while small by historical standards, fascinated many Minnesotans. In the days after the quake, exaggerated accounts and faulty expert analysis reflected the state’s inexperience with geological convulsions.

Sometime between 3:20 and 3:30 on the afternoon of September 3, 1917, people across a wide swath of central and northern Minnesota felt the ground move beneath them. Although the shaking initially confused many of the people who experienced it, its source soon became clear: an earthquake had hit Minnesota. Few Minnesotans had ever felt an earthquake before that day. Fewer still had ever felt one in their home state. The quake of September 3 was an instant subject of fascination.

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Dispatches went out from as far north as International Falls and as far south as St. Cloud after the earthquake struck. Most described the quake as nothing special. Residents in towns like Brainerd, Motley, and Little Falls reported hearing a “rumbling” or “roaring” noise similar to that of a passing truck or train. Glassware rattled. A paint can fell off a ladder. No one was hurt.

But rumors of heavier damage proved hard to ignore. The day after the quake, the Minneapolis Tribune told its readers that “the worst shock,” lasting nearly thirty seconds, happened in Staples. It reported that the shaking knocked goods off store shelves and that shoppers made “miraculous escapes.” In Staples, the windows of the Northern Pacific train station shattered, and the depot’s concrete platform cracked. Before long, people were referring to the tremor as the “Staples earthquake.”

But the initial reports of damage in Staples appeared to stretch the truth. Three days after the quake, the Wadena Pioneer Journal reported that the tremor had not, as earlier claimed, “demoralized” the working people of Staples. The editor of the Staples World pointed out that, contrary to the Minneapolis papers’ reports, the earthquake did not cause significant damage.

The sensational coverage of the earthquake did not stop with Staples. The Brainerd Dispatch in particular seemed to relish embellishment. In its initial report, it described the fortuitous experience of one Ben Olson, who was fishing on Gladstone Lake when “the shock came” and “the waves rolled in.” The Dispatch claimed that Olson caught his limit of bass when the tremor caused hundreds of fish to swim in terror past his boat.

Newspaper reporters were not the only ones to get their facts wrong. Seismology was a developing science in the early 1900s, and limited understanding of earthquakes led some experts to assume that the Staples quake was unique. They did not realize that Staples lay along a fault now known as the Great Lake Tectonic Zone.

Even Warren Upham, the state’s preeminent geologist, was misinformed. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Minnesota had not experienced an earthquake since at least the early nineteenth century, and possibly long before. But soon after his comments appeared in the newspaper, Upham began receiving letters from early settlers informing him that he was wrong. One reported that an earthquake had shaken Long Prairie in 1860 or 1861.

In the years that followed, geologists determined that at least five earthquakes — including the one that hit Long Prairie in 1860 or 1861 — shook Minnesota in the half century before the 1917 Staples quake. Several decades later, the Minnesota Geological Survey estimated that the Staples earthquake had a magnitude of 4.3, making it the strongest recorded tremor to shake the state until the 4.6 magnitude Morris, Minnesota, quake of 1975.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.