Earthquake shakes Puget Sound area on December 7, 1880, followed by one on December 12.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 8/01/2000
  • Essay 2301
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On December 7 and 12, 1880, two earthquakes strike the Puget Sound region. Frightened residents rush out of buildings. They are felt in Portland, Oregon, in Port Townsend, in Seattle, at the coal mines at Newcastle, and in the Stuck and Puyallup valleys in south King County. Shortly before the December 12 earthquake, an apparent meteorite is sighted crashing into the Chuckanut Mountains just south of Bellingham. Over the next three months a number of aftershocks follow.

December 7th Earthquake

On December 7, 1880 at about 5:45 p.m., the earthquake was felt throughout the Puget Sound region. Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Tacoma, Puyallup, Olympia, and Port Townsend reported shaking. At Seattle, "People rushed into the streets from stores, restaurants and saloons" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 1880).

People in the Chinese district were most frightened and it was one or two hours before they calmed down. A Mr. Atkinson, who was in Newcastle at the time of the quake, came to Seattle a few days after the earthquake that occurred later in the week and reported that the December 7 quake was stronger than the one on December 12. At Seattle the shock waves were felt traveling from the southeast to northwest and at Bainbridge Island they were felt traveling from north to south.

December 12th Earthquake

On Sunday December 12, 1880 at about 8:40 p.m., the second Puget Sound earthquake of the week was felt strongly in Seattle. It was more severe than the December 7 quake. A witness of the 1880 earthquake, a Seattle resident, wrote in 1904 to the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

"It was so sharp that it caused people who were on the streets to stagger. It was a Sabbath evening and quite a large congregation was at church on Third Avenue. The shock alarmed the worshippers and they arose en masse. One lady fainted and a panic was narrowly averted by the minister and one cool-headed man who stood near the door" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 1904, p. 1)

In Seattle, "Dogs in the street howled and horses endeavored to escape from their stalls," added the December 16, 1880 Port Townsend Democratic Press.

The quake caused lamps hung from a 16-foot high ceiling at a house located at the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue and James Street to swing six to eight feet. At another dwelling, a chimney fell. At the south end of King County, residents along the Stuck and Puyallup valleys stated that the quake moved the earth like ocean swells.

A Meteorite?

Just before the December 12 earthquake, a Seattle resident reported witnessing what "seemed to be two very large balls of fire that appeared in the clear sky a short distance apart and hung as in balance an instant, and then darted down and toward each other until they crashed and disappeared. A moment afterwards came the shock" (The Seattle Weekly Post, December 17, 1880). A Whatcom County paper reported witnessing a meteorite that descended into the Chuckanut Mountains. It is unknown whether this strange event was the cause of the quake.

The December 12 earthquake was felt from Portland to Port Townsend, where it lasted about 11 seconds. It was not felt at Victoria, British Columbia, or at Neah Bay near Cape Flattery, the northwest point of Washington. During the following three months, a Bainbridge Island resident reported three more aftershocks in December, five aftershocks in January 1881, two aftershocks in February 1881, and a single aftershock on March 14, 1881.


Ruth Ludwin "December 7th and 12th, 1880 Puget Sound Earthquakes," in Ruth Ludwin and A. I. Quamar, A Database Catalog of Cascadia Earthquakes (Reston: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, 2000) Appendix 3, (; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 1904, p. 1. Newspaper quotations were taken from the cited Website.

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