Memories of N.B.'s biggest earthquake still fresh after 40 years

·4 min read
The double quakes were centred in an un-populated region of the Miramichi watershed north of Route 108, about midway between Newcastle and Plaster Rock. (Natural Resources Canada - image credit)
The double quakes were centred in an un-populated region of the Miramichi watershed north of Route 108, about midway between Newcastle and Plaster Rock. (Natural Resources Canada - image credit)

New Brunswickers and federal scientists are marking the 40th anniversary of an earth shattering moment in the province's history.

"It was a typical Saturday morning," recalled Tammy Caseley, who was living in Nasonworth, south of Fredericton, "until the house started to shake and we heard the deafening sound of a rushing train."

At 8:53 Atlantic Standard Time, on Jan. 9, 1982, the largest earthquake ever recorded in New Brunswick, struck in the remote woods of the Miramichi highlands, north of Route 108, about midway between Newcastle and Plaster Rock.

According to a reprint on the Natural Resources Canada website of a paper that was originally published in the spring of 1982, it had a magnitude of 5.7, which is considered on the upper end of a medium strength earthquake, and was felt by people all over New Brunswick.

Natural Resources Canada
Natural Resources Canada

It was strong enough that many people have vivid memories of that morning.

Six-and-a-half-year old Colin Léger was playing with LEGOs at home in Cocagne when the wrought iron railing to the basement started to rattle and the light fixture started to sway.

Rebekah Chasse was eating cereal in the kitchen with her siblings in Drummond. Moments earlier their pet cat Howard had been "losing it" on the front lawn. Their dad hurried in to make sure everyone was ok.

"There was a roar that sounded like maybe the oil furnace was exploding," said Caroline Walker of Fredericton.

She and her husband wondered if the Mactaquac Dam would hold and put an emergency evacuation bag near the front door.

Don Harris was living near Saint John at the time. He thought there must be a bulldozer outside causing the house to vibrate.

It would have started with a loud bang, said Maurice Lamontagne, a seismologist with the federal government, followed by small vibrations, then a secondary wave a few seconds later.

"It would have come as a huge jolt for sure," he said.

Most people reacted by running outside, said Lamontagne.

Submitted by Maurice Lamontagne
Submitted by Maurice Lamontagne

It's actually better to stay indoors if that's where you are when an earthquake hits, he noted, under something sturdy such as a desk or table, to avoid being hit by falling objects such as loose bricks.

Being prepared for an earthquake also means having a 72-hour emergency kit, he said.

New Brunswick residents weren't used to earthquakes, said Lamontagne. But they became a bit more familiar with them in the days ahead.

A few hours after the initial earthquake on Jan. 9, 1982, residents had not yet recovered from their surprise," said the report, when an aftershock hit with a magnitude of 5.1.

By the next morning, 80 aftershocks had been detected at a seismic activity station in Edmundston.

Scientists from all over eastern Canada and New England weren't sure what to expect next and mobilized to get to the epicentre and gather more data.

It wasn't easy.

Temperatures were about minus 25 C. and the provincial government had to send plows onto logging roads to clear deep snow.

It took about a week to get all the portable seismographs installed.

They "circled the active zone," said the report, "monitoring it from all sides and directly on top."

A second quake almost as big as the first hit early that Monday evening.

There were 237 aftershocks in about a 25 hour period between Jan. 13-14 and about four shocks an hour for 10 days.

Field workers near the epicentre felt sharp jolts and heard thunder-like rumbles nearly every day, said the report.

But no indication was found of any ground disturbances or movement in nearby cabins, which were all unoccupied.

"Damage was very slight," said the report, "a few hairline cracks but no structural damage in buildings up to 100 kilometres away."

Natural Resources Canada
Natural Resources Canada

In the nearest community, Doaktown, about 60 kilometres away, the quakes caused some cracks in walls and small objects to fall, said Lamontagne, but nothing major.

Newer buildings hold up well in moderate quakes, he said, but if it had happened under a city, there would have been damage.

A quake of a similar magnitude hit the Cornwall, Ont., area in 1944, said Lamontagne, causing quite a bit of damage.

The Miramichi quakes were also felt across P.E.I. and in parts of Nova Scotia, eastern Quebec and New England, up to 350 kilometres away, according to Natural Resources Canada.

A few occupants of high-rise buildings felt it as far as 700 kilometres away, in Ottawa and New York City.

The incident is a reminder that quakes can happen in this area, said Lamontagne.

There's no way of predicting when they'll occur, he said, but a good chance there will be one in a 50-year period.

There were moderate quakes in southwestern New Brunswick in 1904, he said, and Moncton in 1855.

Lamontagne has compiled an even more detailed report about the Miramichi quakes, which includes accounts from postmasters all over eastern Canada, as well as news clippings and engineering reports that were collected in 1982, but never published.

He said the new report will be available to the public for free on the Natural Resources Canada website in about a month.

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