The Wanganui Earthquake of 1897

Between 1897 and 1904, New Zealand entered another of its geologically active periods, and three 7th magnitude earthquakes were experienced.

The second quake of the series struck on the 16th of November 1901 when a magnitude 7 quake occurred near Cheviot in the South Island. This event caused serious damage and landslides in North Canterbury, and one death was reported. The largest of the three was the magnitude 7.5 earthquake which struck off Cape Turnagain on the 9th of August 1904. Opinions differ on these old quakes, and one source actually lists the third event as the smallest of the series at magnitude 6.7.

The 7th magnitude Wanganui quake of Wednesday the 8th of December 1897 was the first in the series of large earthquakes. The early morning quake struck at 2:40 a.m., reportedly shaking houses and their occupants and contents for nearly two minutes. There was considerable damage in the borough and suburbs, and water surged back and forth in the river.

In Wanganui most chimneys were either levelled or damaged severely, and fissures several inches wide opened in the footpaths in Glasgow Street. There were many close calls as chimney bricks plunged through rooves into bedrooms, and more than half a dozen residents were injured, one woman severely, when a chimney collapsed into her bedroom at Aramaho.

Water was ejected from most water tanks, causing damage to houses, and the area of the town with a reticulated water supply was without water when the mains burst in several places. Fortunately, fire was not a major concern owing to the clement weather, and only one house was destroyed by fire when the occupants fled the building during the shaking leaving candles burning. Heavy furniture was displaced and the occupant of a house at St. John’s Hill was alarmed to find a piano had been thrown across a room.

Business premises suffered collapsed brick walls and broken windows, while stocks of glassware, chinaware, and goods in bottles and jars were thrown from shelves. Damage to contents was estimated at several thousand pounds. The new brick hospital was largely unscathed, apart from a few small cracks in plasterwork and one wall.

Large fissures were reported in the Makirkiri Valley and springs started in the road and nearby properties.

The earthquake was felt severely at Manaia and Patea but only a few chimney-tops were reported damaged. It was felt as a prolonged earthquake at Masterton and throughout the district. Clocks were stopped on the coast and, while people were alarmed, no significant damage was reported. It was also felt severely in New Plymouth and Napier and as a sharp shock in Auckland.

In Wellington, the shake was regarded as the strongest quake felt for a number of years but it did only minor damage to contents as well as ringing bells and causing doors to burst open. Blenheim residents said they felt the quake strongly and three distinct pulses were felt during a minute and three-quarters of shaking, but no damage was reported.

The quake was not felt strongly at Christchurch where locals had other worries brought about by weather that was very cold for the time of year. The hard frost of the previous morning which cut down potato, tomato, bean and other crops occupied their attention more.

Back in the Wanganui district, if residents of the settlement at Aramoho (about 5.5 km from Wanganui) were thinking of resorting to the odd tipple to calm their jangling nerves, a restraining hand was on the way. The Rev. W.C. Woodward presented a temperance lecture at the Wesleyan Church there on the evening of Friday the 10th of December, and life began getting back to normal.

[sources: Eiby, G.A., Earthquakes, Heinemann Reed, 1989, p 150; Papers Past website, The Wanganui Herald, 8th, 9th and 10th December 1897, p2. ]

Leave a Reply