This account, written by Judge Benjamin Hayes, an early district judge from San Diego, describes the earthquake of May 1862 and the impact it had on the people of San Diego, City and County.
Judge Hayes' letter is presented below in its entirety. The original is found in, "Notes on California Affairs" by Benjamin Hayes (1874) at the Bancroft Library. Some words were illegible and are indicated by closed brackets, "[ ]". Any errors in transcription are my responsibility alone. If I can get a clearer copy or an actual transcription of the letter, I will update this post.
EARTHQUAKE OF MAY 1862
The earthquake at San Diego city, on Tuesday the 27th of May 1862, is considered by the Californians, to be the severest felt since the year 1811 where the church of San Juan Capistrano was thrown down. A gust of wind immediately preceded the roaring premonitory sound which was instantly followed, or rather accompanied by two shocks - the second the severest, together last seven seconds. The frame "Colorado House" rocked like a cradle – and this is the general description as to other houses, "Franklin House," etc. The brick two- story “Whaley House" was cracked in 5 or 6 places, as well as some adobe houses. The shock on this day was vertical. This is evident by the evident jarring off the shelves of glass tumblers. The river (which is now pretty full) on both sides washed over the banks, at Old Town. [ ] had a three foot image of Washington, in plaster of paris (and hollow). The feet had been well glued on. The image did not fall from the top of the book case, but the head was jarred off. He describes the rocking motion of his house, terminating by a sudden jerk, when all became still; his two clocks were both stopped. Dished clatters; milk in [ ], water in kettles on the stoves, were dashed out. The whole population rushed out into the streets and the public square, in great terror; and for some nights afterward, many did not sleep in their houses. Some experienced a nauseating sensation . Mrs. Wrightington built a new kitchen with a few poles and the green mustard so as to "cook in peace!"
This occurred at 12 m. Between that and 8 p.m. there were six other and lighter shocks. [ ] Tuesday there was no shock. At 10 a.m. there was one nearly as severe as that of Tuesday, and at [ ] 3 a.m. of Friday, the shock was very sensibly felt, another slight shock on Saturday and Sunday, none on Monday.
At the Mesa Grande (John Minter), the shock was very distant on Tuesday, but not damaging, as at San Diego. We were seated at dinner, 15 minutes after 12 m, when we experienced the wind, blowing the [ ] down the hall, followed by the roaring and the two shocks, or rather one gradually running into the other, but both, at their heights, equally violent, shaking the shingle roof for perhaps seven seconds. Clear, at the time, and through the rest of the day - wind S.W., for an hour or two afterward, winds increased to a stiff breeze. This is the first felt here for about two(?) years of any severity. Then there was a severe shock: so says Minter: (but I am inclined to think he refers to the earthquake of September 20, 1856.) This place, San Ysabel, Vallecito, are subject to light shocks. This point (La Mesa) must be 3700 feet above the level of the sea. The shock of Tuesday was felt at [ ], below the Mesa. On that day there was a light frost at the Mesa. At 4 p.m. a heavy fog came over from [ ], turning into a [ ] . [ ] about dark, which the wind blew against the roof at night like a rain. There was heavy shower next morning. [ ] the shock of Thursday the 29th occurred at 10 a.m., and lasted about four seconds. The roaring preceding it: a shock again at 3 a.m. of 30th felt, however, by none of us, except Minter. The 28th was clear after 12 m., and cold - a strong wind roaring through the thick timber on the hill-top: 29th a light frost - day clear and beautiful.
At Oak Grove (Ahuenga), and Taylor's, and Temecula - all the shocks described as above: at the first named place a soldier told me, some sacks of barley on Tuesday were jarred off the pile, dishes shattered, & c. At Temecula, we found all the Indians impressed by the shock of Tuesday. Same description at Guajome and San Dieguito. [ ] [ ], and old Dona Juliana Osuna gave as vivid a description of it as any in San Diego: the latter lady must be over 70 years of age - she had never experienced such a shock here.
A Mexican Colonel Ferrer, however, says it "was nothing to the earthquake of Acapulco". He felt it, at Anaheim.
Mrs. Wrightington and several other old ladies of San Diego say they could "distinctly perceive a great sulphurous smell" in their house, after they returned to them.
At the Playa, in many places the steep banks of Point Loma, the earth fell down. The tide-gauge was undergoing some repairs so that the exact effect upon the tides cannot be determined. But, the center of the bay was considerably agitated, and a wave or two threw themselves some three feet upon the beach, above the tide of that hour. The day was hazy with very light wind. According to Mr. Cassidy, the observer at the tide-gauge, the direction of the severe shocks of the 27th was from the S.W. to N.E. Just before these shocks, he had driven a large pile about five feet into the mud; at the second shock - the severest - this pile shot up out of the water: it is supposed, it had been jarred by the first shock, so that the water collected around & below it, dislodging & forcing it up, in the manner of any heavy log thrown end-ways into the water.
According to Mr. Cassidy, there was an interval of two minutes between the first and second shock. At the time he and his men standing on the platform that connects the tide-gauge with the shore: the platform was severely shaken. The sandy beach was slightly cracked in several places.
The upper portion of the brick of the tower of the light-house (on Point Loma) was cracked in several places - one crack entirely through - broke no glass however, nor did it disturb the machinery of the light, except to tighten one of the doors of the lens.
From various accounts, the waters of San Diego River were much disturbed.
One of the cracks (vertical) in the "Whaley House", passes through five bricks.
Miss Schiller showed me its effects upon the residence of her brother. The cracks are nearly all vertical - from the floor to the roof of two rooms - and exceed a dozen. The edge of one is pressed an eighth of an inch out beyond the other: one passes through the thick adobe wall from inside to outside. I saw also a considerable vertical crack in the dining room of the "Bandini House". The frames of doors and windows were loosened in several instances. The "Fitch House", (accompanied by Hollister), was much [ ] on its side wall: it was immediately (within 50 yards) back of this house, that the water of the river rose so as to conceal a narrow bar: here too there were several breakages in the sandy shore as if it had opened and closed again.
The shock of the 27th May was felt at the same hour - and quite strong - at New Town, the Cajon, Rincon del Diablo (Witherby's); at Kimball's (4 miles west of the Warner divide): at San Felipe, on the other side of the divide; at Agua Hedionda: at Temescal Tin Mines.
Aside from vivid descriptions of things breaking and falling, Judge Hayes' narrative highlights several themes that I believe are worth exploring: First, Fear and nausea; Second, Tidal effects; and Third, Architectural damage.
First (and of particular significance to 21st century San Diegans), is the anxiety felt by the citizenry resulting from the power and suddenness of the earthquake. Hayes reported that the people of San Diego were in considerable fear, not only immediately following the "shocks" but for days after, going so far as to spend the night outside rather than chancing aftershocks. This behavior strikes a chord in modern readers. The fear of aftershocks and damaged structures was as real then as it is now.
Aftershocks, of varying intensity, were felt all over the county lasting through Friday the 30th. Hayes also reported that in San Diego, people experienced nausea probably due to a strong sulphurous smell in the air.
Another point mentioned in Hayes' narrative concerned comments made comparing this May 1962 earthquake and those of the past. For example, it was mentioned that there was a "severe shock" on September 20, 1856. A Colonel Ferrer boasted that this quake did not compare to the Acapulco quake (date unknown). Also, I find it interesting that knowledge and experience of previous earthquakes in the area is commonplace. This is not Europe where records had been kept for centuries; aside from scattered native villages, the first European-style records were only kept here in San Diego county since 1769 - less than 100 years previous.
Second, comments regarding the effects the earthquake had upon the waters of San Diego Bay and River, I find to be very provocative. According to Hayes’ informant the center of San Diego Bay was “considerably agitated” even though the wind was very light. This lead to stronger than normal wave action, resulting in waves striking the beach some three feet above normal.
Hayes informant also related that having driven a pile “about five feet into the mud” immediately following the second shock, it was forced up out of the water. Also the platform leading to the tide-gauge was much shaken due to the disturbances in the bay.
Third, and finally, Hayes reported that effects of the quake impacted many locations around San Diego county. These comments focus on damage sustained by Old Town structures though there is mention of New Town, Temecula and other locales. In Old Town for example, there are descriptions of damage to the Colorado House, Franklin House, Whaley House and the Fitch House.
Even the Bandini House, the old Casa de Bandini, had a "considerable vertical crack in the dining room" followed with "the frames of doors and windows were loosened in several instances." Apparently, this earthquake damage begins the process of decay and disrepair that the Parson Brothers would face in the 1869 renovation/rebuild of the structure into the Cosmopolitan Hotel.