was a Tuesday afternoon in May and the day's sun was scorching
the desert grasslands that surrounded the town sites and ranches
in Cochise County... Arizona Territory. The hillsides were thick
with the vegetation that sprang from the winter's rains and the
spring's wild grasses grew tall amongst the prickly pear cacti.
As far as the eye could see the once green lushness of wild grass
had become an ever-present lifeless brown. The drovers that were
rounding up the cattle near the Abbott Ranch just east of Tombstone
were working their way through the wild mesquite and prickly scrub
brush as they noticed in the distance rocks falling and dust rising
on the western side of the valley. Not more than a few seconds
later the scene was repeated on the eastern side of this property.
The ground began to heave
and the parched earth opened up in every direction. In one place
far up the mountainside a stream of pure water 10 inches in diameter
began belching forth producing a lake a mile wide. And water came
bubbling from the hillsides that had never before even been damp.
A subdued roaring sound made
its way across the plains comparable to an approaching wind or
wagons rumbling in the distance. The moment brought cracks and
fissures in the earth as well as their adobe dwellings. And the
shocks eventually threw the cattle to the ground and left horse
and man rolling with the undulation.
It was May 3, 1887 and these cowboys had just
experienced the effects of an earthquake whose epicenter was less
than 80 miles south in Sonora Mexico. The village of Bavispe 40
miles south of the Mexico/Arizona border felt the brunt of the
earth's shake. There many residences, stores and churches collapsed
leaving the town virtually destroyed. And forty-two lives were
lost out of a population of 700.
Throughout Cochise County just above the Mexican
border many ranches and settlements felt the effects of the 7.2-estimated
magnitude earthquake. At the San Bernardino Ranch owned by then
Cochise County Sheriff John Slaughter two adobe buildings were
instantly thrown down and all but totally destroyed. There had
been only 120 whole adobe bricks found in the ruins after the
great shake where originally a total of 7000 had been used to
form the walls that now lay in crumbles. It was reported in the
June 1, 1887 Tombstone Epitaph that a lake covering a number of
acres between the San Bernardino and Batetto ranches disappeared
entirely almost immediately after the shock. The lake was known
to contain many fish, but none were left on the bottom. This ranch
was almost directly north of the epicenter and certainly felt
the impact of the quake that fortunately took no lives here but
did demolish a smokehouse and milk house and the dwellings of
adobe that once protected the families residing in this valley.
A bit northwest of the Slaughter
Ranch the town of Bisbee too felt the impact of the earth's shaking.
Miners 400 feet below the surface felt the shock while people
above ground rushed to the streets in their own form of shock.
The May 4th edition of the Tombstone Prospector that year noted
that here in Bisbee glass rattled in the windows at a fearful
rate, billiards balls rolled from the racks, houses rocked as
a cradle, dishes and bottles fell from walls, and the Catholic
Church received a large crack in one corner. This same edition
mentions that from the first sound it seemed as if heavy artillery
had turned loose as there was a rumbling and grumbling not heard
before. And thankfully not only was there no loss of lives in
Bisbee but the quake left no visible damage to the structure of
the mines for the timbers were not dislodged.
North of the Bisbee Mule
Mountains lays the Sulphur Springs Valley. Here residents of this
valley were violently rocked by this quake where the soil burst
open with discharges of water, while the wells overflowed and
were partially filled with sand. The Tucson Daily Star of May
6, 1887 made mention of the immense rush of waters in the Sulphur
Springs Valley caused by the earthquake and that a large number
of new springs have burst forth. A few weeks later these journals
reported that the new streams that sprang forth due to the earthquake
have not ceased to flow. And one source from the Engineering and
Mining Journal mentions that there was a party of surveyors in
the area. These men could distinctly see the wave of the quake
approach and were cognizant of the movement when the earth would
rock and did rock beneath their feet.
The residents of Tombstone
to the west of the Sulphur Springs Valley were startled out of
their buildings. The shake lasting from 40 - 100 seconds commenced
with a low rumbling noise and was followed by two violent shocks.
Walls of the hotels swayed and foundations were disarranged. Chimneys
tumbled down and plaster on the outside walls of homes cracked
and peeled off. Glassware crashed to the floor as well as the
globes from the chandeliers in the Crystal Palace Saloon that
fell from their precarious perch above the heads of the patrons.
There was little damage in the mines but one phenomenon occurred
when every clock in town stopped.
A few miles southwest of
Tombstone in the town of Charleston the earthquake left not one
building safe to live in. The town's existence was already on
the decline and with the crumbling of what buildings were left
the town's fate was sealed with the shaking of the ground. The
rich grasslands surrounding this once bustling town were generous
to the cattle ranchers, rich with grasses for the cattle to feed
upon and lush with waters from the San Pedro River. That too would
change with the results of this incredible earthquake.
Also along the San Pedro
River the town of Fairbank too received its share of damage when
the earth's movement actually moved the railroad along the embankment
as much as 12 inches and Kimballs Lake near the town was completely
dried up within 20 minutes after the tremor.
Following the river north
the town site of St. David was hit hard as well. The stone schoolhouse
used also as a church was rocked and one wall collapsed rendering
it unsafe for its respective purposes. Water was thrown out of
irrigation canals and in some places the ground caved in. The
San Pedro at this point changed from a creek narrow enough to
jump across to a wide riverbed. And amazingly enough artesian
water was found soon after the earthquake and artesian ponds suddenly
appeared in the valleys adjacent to the town.
And the town of Benson 7
miles north suffered damage to several buildings and stores were
forced to close with substantial damage to their walls. A Southern
Pacific engine on the turntable was moved forward and backward
with the brakes set as reported by both the Los Angeles Times
of May 5 and the El Paso Times of the same day. Not far from Benson
several fresh streams of water were started out of crevices made
by the shock and the water supply in some instances was cut off
land has shook. The grounds had opened up and the waters either
were completely stopped or swallowed up while fresh new springs
found their way to the surface. Cries were heard from the streets
in the towns of Cochise County. Ranchers were puzzled and wondered
as to the cause. And yet there was not much time to ponder on
these things as soon the hillsides throughout the southern part
of Arizona were quickly completely a blaze with a torrential fire
that swept the entire grasslands and fields, mountains sides and
valleys, and ranches and pastures. The reports spread like wildfire
too. Rumors spread as to what has happened and where it was all
happening. Stories of volcanoes erupting and lava flows spewing
down the Huachuca Mountains were erroneously told and repeated
again. The Mule Mountains, the Whetstones, the San Jose's, and
even the Winchester Mountains about 45 miles from Willcox in upper
Cochise County were all mentioned to have active and erupting
volcanoes threatening the towns around them. Perhaps the Day of
Judgment had arrived some thought.
It was the massive rumbling
of the earth, the rocking and swaying of the hillsides that set
off the rampant fires … not an erupting volcano. Stones, rocks
and boulders crashed to the ground at such a force that sparks
would fly igniting the wild and dry grasses that clung to the
parched soil. Not a place in Cochise County was safe from the
roaring flames that consumed the rich ranch land and fertile soil.
The hearty citizens now had to contend with fighting a blazing
fire hopeful that the winds would not send it their way and destroy
what was left of their cracked and crumbling homes.
The rich grazing lands that
once supplied ranchers with abundant grasses for their cattle
was now destroyed. And none more affected were the ranchers along
the San Pedro River near the old town of Charleston. The fire
destroyed all the fertile grazing land and the smoke hung over
the valley for days on end. The ash then settled upon the river
top subsequently suffocating the fish that knew these waters as
home. Later as the summer rains came to this devastated land the
burnt top soil washed away taking with it the fire-weakened grass
roots leaving the land virtually unsuitable for further cattle
ranching and the men who claimed this land soon left.
The wild fires burned for
weeks and the skies were covered in ash and soot. And the residents
wondered when it would all end. For months after this event after
shocks could be felt at various intervals and strengths sending
some residents back onto the streets while fearing to sleep under
a cracked roof. But soon buildings were repaired and the cracks
in adobe walls reinforced. The towns recovered and life continued
on with stories being told for years on end of the fire in the
hills and the shaking of the earth.
Geologists today believe
that the earthquake of May 1877 centered in Bavispe Mexico and
felt all the way to Albuquerque New Mexico and El Paso Texas was
a 100,000-year quake. They theorize that perhaps tremors felt
in this region today are aftershocks from this event that took
place many years ago. Research on this article was gleaned from
the December 1980 Special Paper No. 3 "The 1887 Earthquake
in San Bernardino Valley, Sonora: Historic accounts and intensity
patterns in Arizona" by Susan M. DuBois and Ann W. Smith
published by the State of Arizona Bureau of Geology and Mineral
Technology and the University of Arizona.