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Mansfield's Memories: The Earthquakes of 1811-1812

April 18, 2008 09:13 PM

The memories of the earthquake of 2008, Chez NBS, are not nearly so interesting.  It involved both of us waking up, and me, briefly thinking something was wrong with the furnace and making it thump.  But why would the furnace be kicking on?  And then it was, where's Henry?  Because it was like he was on the floor, scratching like crazy with a hind leg.  But he seemed fine, and once we established that, it was back to sleep for us.  You tend to do that when you have a new baby and it's not wailing.  Back to sleep, quick!  It did occur to me for a minute that it was an earthquake.  But I didn't speak up, and now wish I had.  What an authority I would have seemed!

But anyway, what about Mr. Mansfield?  If you've never read his Personal Memories: Social, Political and Literary with Sketches of Many Noted People 1803-1843, you're missing out.  It's life in Cincinnati circa those days, and it is extraordinarly interesting.  You think times are tough now?  You aren't at risk of getting scalped by Indians.

Here's how he recalls the earthquakes.  Yes, he says there was more than one.  He says it went on for several months:

In the midst of this work [his father surveying Northwestern Ohio and Indiana] an event occured which was memorable then, and hardly less so now.  On the night of the 16th of December, 1811, Cousin Mary and I were waked up by a rattling which we supposed to be rats, but which proved to be the handles of a trunk...

Mansfield was, by the way, from a wealthy family.  And yes, they apparently had rats.  I think everyone did.

...In a moment we found the room was shaking, and sprang up frightened.  Then we heard my father's voice calling us.  We rushed down stairs, and, with the whole family, ran into the yard.  While we ran out the bricks were falling from the roof of the house, the chimney having been shaken down...

Thank God this didn't happen to us, we just got an offer on the house, and the inspection is Sunday.

...There was a light snow on the ground, and a carriage in the yard.  My mother and little sister took refuge in the carriage, and my father went back to the house, saying there was more danger of rheumatism than of the house falling.

I like people who are sensible enough to be practical during natural disasters. 

Anyway, back to it:

In Cincinnati...

Mansfield was not technically in "Cincinnati," by the way, he was two miles away, at "Bates Place."  Bonus points to any commenter who can figure out where "Bates Place" was.  I can't tell where it was, but Mansfield says that in later years, it was called "Mt. Comfort" and that their house was "down the Hamilton Road from Cincinnati."  It sounds like was near Northside (f/k/a Cumminsville) but that community was established by then, so Mansfield must have been somewhere different. 

But back to what was going on in the big city:

...the Columbian Inn, at the Corner of Main and Columbia Streets...

Columbia Street must have been below what is now Third Street, and is probably under what is now Great American Ballpark.  There is no Columbia Street now, so far as I know.

...was the principal house of entertainment, where some of the first young men and ladies boarded.  It is said, that on that night the street in front of the Columbian Inn presented a strong contrast to the ordinary rules of propriety; in fact, there was more of nature displayed than of fashion...

I find it hard to believe that's true.  It was December, in the days before climate control.  I'm sure they dressed appropriately for bed, if it really was a respectible boarding house.

The earthquake of December 16, 1811, was the first of a series of earthquakes, which continued about five months.  My father, in order to test the state of things, put a very delicate pendulum inside one of our front windows, and that pendulum never ceased to vibrate in nearly five months.  In the meanwhile, there were, in January and February, several violent shocks....

At our house, the earthquake gave rise to a sort of new life.  Our family was, of course, much alarmed, and some of the gentlement in town would ride out and spend the night with us.... In this manner the winter passed.  Severe shocks of earthquakes occured frequently.  I remember one happening in the morning, when I was at a neighboring log-house.  There was corn on the upper floor, and I heard that corn roll from one side of the house to the other.  As I have said, these shocks did not cease until May.  At that time we were preparing to go to the East, and the government making ready its troops for the march on Canada.

Those Brits.  Still not happy about the whole independence thing. 

I remember talk of the earthquake here in the early '80s--it was in August, and we were in Michigan at the time.  It was the talk of the resort up there, since the resort is entirely made up of people from Cincinnati.  And I can remember hearing from my paternal grandmother, who was in downtown Cincinnati that day with her sister.  They saw a man running from a skyscraper, yelling that everyone should get away from the building, because there had been an earthquake.  "Oh that poor man," they said.  Because he seemed quite insane.  Not everyone felt that earthquake, I guess.

But I think most people felt the one we had this morning, unless they were sleeping really soundly.  I heard we had an aftershock around 10:30 am.  I didn't feel that.  Maybe we'll have more.  Maybe it will go on for five months!


In the early 1800's Columbia was the main drag below Third Street. We called it Second Street for a while, and the name lives on in Columbia Parkway, which was its eastward continuation. That puts the Columbia Inn right smack between the stadium and the slave center...almost exactly where dignitaries recently broke ground for The Banks.

"Bates Place" is a tougher nut to crack, but let's see what we can find. Open this link in a browser:
Click item 13 to bring up an 1838 map of Cincinnati from the Library of Congress.
Navigate around to get acquainted. Episcopal and Presbyterian Burial Ground is now Washington Park, Eleventh or Canal St is now Central Parkway, and Northern Row is now Liberty St, which the green line tells us was the northern corporation line.
Travelling roads were typically named for their destinations. Look in the upper left corner of the map, and you'll see the intersection of the roads which led to the towns of Harrison and Hamilton. Today that point is the eastern edge of the Western Hills Viaduct, which still carries traffic out Harrison Avenue to the City of Harrison. Follow Hamilton Road from that intersection back toward town where it intersects Main St just north of Northern Row (Liberty) and you'll see that it's same road we call McMicken today. The 1838 map only shows a mile of the Hamilton Road. So we'll need to switch to a modern map to continue.

Open Google Maps and "Get Directions" from "1610 main 45202" to "1106 Bates Ave 45225". You'll see it's just over two miles. When a new development went in, local streets were often named for the estates they displaced. Perhaps Bates Ave used to be "Bates' Place", and is the location you seek. It could either be the east end, where The Forum Apartments sit up on the hill above the Hopple St Viaduct, or the west end, where the County intends to erect the Simon Leis Memorial Hoosegow.

It's been an interest walk down history lane. But before I go, I have to thank you for the best part of your post:
"the Columbian Inn presented a strong contrast to the ordinary rules of propriety; in fact, there was more of nature displayed than of fashion..."
The mental picture of loose, nubile "au naturale" young females at pubs on Pete Rose Way brings back fond memories. They really knew how to turn a phrase in those days.

Mark Miller   ·  April 19, 2008 10:17 AM

Wow Mark. You certainly win the prize for most researched comment. Very interesting.

NBS   ·  April 20, 2008 01:25 PM

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