Earthquakes at Oamaru in 1876

Early on Saturday the 26th of February 1876, Oamaru residents were startled from their beds by the first of several large earthquakes. Earthquakes in this area of the South Island are unusual, and the shocks were unexpectedly large.

The first event at 3:20 a.m. lasted 30-40 seconds, stopped clocks and threw doors open as it tossed crockery and books from shelves while the houses rocked violently. It was accompanied by a loud rumbling noise and some reported that the ground quivered for several minutes afterward.

Calm returned until a smaller earthquake struck at 4:05 a.m. Then at 4:11 a.m. an earthquake more violent than the first shook the town.

Once again, all was quiet. At 8:45 a.m. an earthquake more violent than the preceding three occurred. This quake brought down chimneys and caused damage to buildings. Ornamental balustrades were thrown from buildings, and the barman and a local outside the Empire Hotel narrowly escaped serious injury as the building was relieved of some of its ornamentation. Damage to the local gas works and hospital necessitated major repairs.

Two of the earthquakes were felt at Waimate, 40 km north of Oamaru at 3:18 a.m. and 8:38 a.m. Further north at Timaru two of the earthquakes were felt but not, it seems, at Christchurch.

At Kakanui, about 10 km south of Oamaru, many chimneys were thrown down as buildings were shaken, but their telegram to the North Otago Times called the damage “nothing serious.”

At Dunedin, the first earthquake was the most severely felt when it struck there at 3:24 a.m. Although it shook buildings and furniture strongly and rang the bell at the university, no serious damage was reported. A further quake was felt at 8:53 a.m. but it was lighter than the first shock.

Back in Oamaru, residents began taking down the many damaged chimneys that were still partially standing, and an unease settled upon the town, with many believing that further shocks were to come. They were proved right when three aftershocks, which the townsfolk would normally have regarded as severe in their own right, occurred on Sunday morning. The first struck at 56 minutes after midnight, and caused the earth to tremble for some minutes. Smaller events occurred at 6:05 a.m. and 8:07 a.m. according to the North Otago Times.

After a sleepless night for many, it was then hoped that the sequence of shakes had run its course. It was not to be so, however, as a distinct earthquake was felt at 9:20 p.m. on the Sunday night, followed by a lighter quake at 11 p.m. Between 1:20 and 4 o’clock on the Monday morning, many small earthquakes continued to shake Oamaru as the aftershocks grew smaller. By this time many residents had moved out of their stone houses and away from those chimneys still standing in the hope of gaining some sleep in coach-houses and outbuildings.

The Otago province has many earthquake faults, both ancient and much younger. Seismologists are unable to explain its current seismic peace, but suggest that it may have periods of alternating activity and quiescence.

[Some newspaper data sourced from the National Library’s Papers Past website].

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