Earthquake hits Puget Sound area on April 13, 1949.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2063
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On April 13, 1949 at 11:55 a.m., a 7.1 magnitude earthquake occurs in Western Washington centered between Olympia and Tacoma. As of 2002, this is the largest earthquake in Puget Sound since non-Indian people started to immigrate and settle along its shores.

Eight people were killed and dozens received serious injuries. Two of the dead were children: Marvin Klegman, 11, of Tacoma, who was at his post as a noon-hour crossing guard and was crushed by falling brick, and Jack Roller, 18, senior class president at Castle Rock.

The ground shook for about 30 seconds and was felt over a 230,000-square-mile area. The earthquake affected all of Washington state, northwest Oregon and south along its coast to Cape Blanco, southwest British Columbia, north Idaho panhandle, and even northwest Montana. The quake's epicenter was located at 47 degrees 06’ 00" North Latitude 122 degrees 42’ 00" West Longitude.

Chimneys Topple Off Roofs

The most damage occurred from Seattle to Chehalis, located about 80 miles south of Seattle. Forty percent of Chehalis' business buildings and houses were damaged including 1,351 chimneys. It was estimated that 10,000 chimneys in Western Washington required repair. Eight buildings at the State Capital in Olympia were damaged. A large sandy spit jutting into Puget Sound north of Olympia disappeared. In Portland, the earthquake caused rockslides and cracks to building walls. Chimneys toppled off roofs and merchandise fell off shelves.

Damage in King County

Earthquake damage in King County communities varied significantly. The extent of an earthquake's ground shaking and damage varies depending on distance from epicenter, bedrock geology, type of ground cover, type of building and structure. A system was devised to document intensity of earthquake and amount of damage. It established 12 levels of ground shaking, from violent shaking causing total destruction (XII) to shaking barely felt by a very few (I). The system is called the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale. Following is a list of the summary of damage in King County towns, grouped by level of damage and ground shaking from strongest to weakest.

Mercalli Intensity Level VIII

In King County, the quake's strongest ground shaking was in Auburn, Richmond Beach, and in parts of Seattle. Damage was considerable to well-built structures and extensive to poorly built ones. Some buildings collapsed. Chimneys, factory stacks, columns, and monuments fell. Heavy furniture overturned. People had difficulty driving.

Auburn: One person was injured. Four blocks of the downtown business district were severely damaged and the Junior High School was condemned and later torn down. Parapet walls and numerous chimneys fell. Plaster walls cracked and many dishes broke.

Richmond Beach: "Damage considerable." Twisted and fallen chimneys, cracked plaster, cracked walls, and broken windows. Trees and bushes shook strongly.

Seattle: Due to old construction and unstable ground most buildings in Pioneer Square received some damage. Three schools received major damage and were condemned. At Lafayette Elementary School in West Seattle, the large brick gable over the main entrance collapsed. Three bridges crossing the Duwamish River were jammed shut due to shifting earth. The KJR Radio Station tower partially collapsed.

Cracks opened in the earth near Green Lake. One thousand and nine hundred brick walls throughout the city collapsed, fractured, or bulged. They were condemned and had to be replaced. Many houses built on filled areas were demolished and in some places the ground turned to quicksand causing floors to crack and basements to fill with silt. Cracks opened in the ground, some spouting water six feet high. Seattle gas lines broke in 100 places but fortunately no fires occurred. Books toppled off Seattle Public Library shelves at the Carnegie downtown branch at the northeast corner of 4th Avenue and Madison Street.

Towns with Intensity Level VII Damage

Towns with Intensity Level VII included Black Diamond, Bothell, Des Moines, Enumclaw, Fall City, Hobart, Issaquah, Kirkland, North Bend Ranger Station, Preston, Snoqualmie, and Vashon Island. Damage included slight to moderate damage to well-built structures and considerable damage to poorly built or badly designed buildings. Chimneys broke and fell. Trees and bushes shook. People quickly exited shaking buildings.

Black Diamond: Cracked walls and wallpaper. Chimneys cracked and twisted with slight damage to brick walls. Pictures fell.

Bothell: Light fixtures, pictures, and doors swung when the quake hits. Occupants immediately left buildings for the streets. In the central section of town, several chimneys fell. Buildings were slightly damaged with cracked chimneys, walls, and plaster. Windows and dishes broke.

North Bend Ranger Station: Cracked plaster and chimneys, small objects fell, cars and trucks shifted.

Preston: Oil stove fires were extinguished. Chimneys cracked, vases fell, small objects moved. Trees and bushes shook.

Snoqualmie: Nearly all damage to buildings was to brick chimneys, dishes, and plaster. Coffee sloshed out of cups. Quake caused rockslide on Mount Si.

Vashon Island: At Cove, buildings creaked, people ran out of businesses and homes, and a few chimneys fell. At the town of Vashon two chimneys fell and other chimneys and plaster walls cracked.

Mercalli Intensity Level VI

Bryn Mawr, Cedar Falls, Mercer Island, Palmer, Scenic, and Skykomish had intensity Level VI damage. Residents felt the ground shaking. Many were frightened and ran out of buildings. Hanging objects swung, plaster cracked, small objects fell, and chimneys were damaged.

Mercalli Intensity Level V

The towns in King County with Intensity Level V, which is minor damage, included Bellevue and Stampede Pass. Nearly everyone in these communities felt the earthquake. Dishes and windows broke, plaster cracked, and pendulum clocks stopped.

Mercalli Intensity Level IV

North Bend had Level IV damage. It had the least amount of ground shaking and damage in the county. Most people indoors felt the quake but many outside did not feel the ground shake. Dishes, windows, and doors moved and walls creaked. Parked cars rocked.


Gerald Thorsen, The Puget Lowland Earthquakes of 1949 and 1965 (Olympia: Washington Department of Natural Resources Division of Geology and Earth Resources Information Circular 81, 1986); Mike Barber, "Death, Destruction in 1949 Earthquake," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 13, 1999, p. 1.
Note: This essay was revised on April 13, 2002.

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