Peruvian Earthquakes of 1868

Above: Sketch of tidal-wave approaching U.S. warship Wateree, off coast of Peru, 1868

Ephraim George Squier

“…the thundering approach of a heavy sea-wall of perpendicular height to the extent of from forty-two to forty-five feet, capped with a fringe of bright, glistening foam, swept over the land, stranding far in-shore, the United States Wateree…”  Captain J. H. Gillis, U.S. Wateree

Journalist E.G. Squier’s account of the devastating South American earthquakes of 1868 for Harper’s Magazine (1869) relies on witness accounts, including one from the captain of a U.S. warship.  The Wateree, which had been moored at the Peruvian port of Arica, was overcome by the 11 tidal waves that accompanied the earthquakes and marooned 450 yards inland and three miles north of the port.

Here Captain J. H. Gillis describes what he saw and heard:

“On the afternoon of August 13 (1868), as we were finishing our dinner on board the [U.S. warship] Wateree… immense clouds of dust were seen at a distance of some ten miles south of [the port of] Arica [Peru]… It was observed from the deck of the vessel that the peaks of mountains in the chain of the Cordillera began to wave to and fro like reeds in a storm…When the the convulsion reached the Morro, a rocky precipice lining one side of the harbor, it also began to move. Pieces of from ten to twenty-five tons in weight began to move from their base and fall, altering the whole front view of that part of the coast. At the same moment the town commenced to crumble into ruins. The noise, the rumbling like the echoes of thunder, the explosive sounds, like that of firing a heavy battery, were terrific and deafening, and the whole soil of the country, as far as it could be seen was moving, first like a wave, in the direction from south to north; then it trembled, and at last it shook heavily, throwing into a heap of ruins two-thirds of the houses of Arica.”

I read The Peruvian Earthquakes of 1868 for the 75th volume of the LibriVox Short Nonfiction collection.
You can listen to my recording here.
You can read the Harper’s article here:


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