Pancake City

Mike is right that Boston’s buildings arent seismically sound, but the problem is more fundamental than that: the Back Bay, which has some of the city’s most beautiful housing as well as the Hancock and Prudential high-rise office buildings, got its name from the fact that it used to be part of the Charles River; the whole thing is a landfill, built on pilings. Somehow I doubt there’s anything you could do to make those buildings stand up in the sort of Richter 8.4 quake that hit the Boston area in 1622.

Updates A reader says that the Hancock and the Pru are built on the sole bit of bedrock in what is otherwise an area of landfill, though I seem to recall a controversy about whether the weight of the Pru was causing Copley Square to sink, pulling the foundation of Trinity Church out from under it. Still, relatively good news if true.

Another reader doubts that there was a significant earthquake in 1622; my memory appears to have been faulty. The reader points to the 1755 Cape Ann quake as the largest in recorded New England history, though the chronicles also record “very great” quakes in 1638 and 1663.

Here’s an account of the 1755 quake, which is listed as “Intensity VIII;” if there’s a Richter-scale estimate, I can’t find it.

This earthquake caused the heaviest damage in the region around Cape Ann and Boston. At Boston, much of the damage was confined to an area of infilled land near the wharfs. There, about 100 chimneys were leveled with the roofs of houses, and many others (1,200 to 1,500) were shattered and partly thrown down. Some chimneys, which were broken off below their tops, tilted dangerously 3 or 4 centimeters; others were twisted or partly turned. The gable ends of several brick buildings (12 to 15) were thrown down, and the roofs of some houses were damaged by the fall of chimneys. Stone fences were thrown down throughout the countryside, particularly on a line extending from Boston to Montreal. New springs formed, and old springs dried up. At Scituate (on the coast southeast of Boston), Pembroke (about 15 kilometers southwest of Scituate), and Lancaster (about 40 kilometers west of Boston), cracks opened in the earth. Water and fine sand issued from some of the ground cracks at Pembroke.

This earthquake was reported from Halifax, Nova Scotia, south to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and from Lake George, New York, east to a ship 320 kilometers east of Cape Ann. The shock was felt so strongly on the ship that those onboard believed the ship had run aground. Several aftershocks occurred.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: