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A Fire in the Hills and A Shaking of the Ground
by Janice
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1887 Quake damage   It 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.

Damage in Sonora Mexico    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.

1887 Quake damage    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 entirely.

Epticenter of Quake   The 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.


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