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The Linville River Mercantile still bears the cracks from an earthquake in 1969.
Photo courtesy Michael Hardy

Originally published: 2012-11-19 20:24:08
Last modified: 2012-11-19 20:24:08

Our Avery County: ‘Did you feel the mountains tremble?’

Michael Hardy / (

There is a song, a newer song, that many of us might sing at church. 

It was written by Martin Smith and is entitled “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” 

Last Saturday, a little after noon, a few of us in Avery County felt the mountains tremble. 

According to the United States Geological Survey, at 12:08 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2012, a 4.3-magnitude earthquake occurred near Whitesburg, Ky. 

The earthquake was located 10.6 miles below the surface. The quake was about 160 miles from Avery County. 

It was a beautiful fall day here in Avery County on Nov. 10. The forecasted high was about 60 degrees. I was sitting at home, working on the computer, lamenting the fact that I needed to go outside. Then, shortly after noon, the house shook for about five seconds. It felt kind of like when the washer is off balance. Within a couple of minutes, reports on Facebook, from Caldwell County and Elizabethton, Tenn., started to pop up, confirming that I was not alone in my assessment. That was an earthquake. Others in our area also felt it. 

While earthquakes in our area are kind of rare, they do happen from time to time. Local residents undoubtedly felt the New Madrid earthquakes; four large quakes between December 1811 and February 1812. The New Madrid quakes were the largest ever experienced in the United States, so powerful that the Mississippi River actually flowed backwards. There was another large earthquake in Charleston, S.C., in August 1886. 

Over the course of the decades, numerous earthquakes have been reported in our area. Shepherd M. Dugger wrote of one in March 1895, chronicling for Charlotte Observer, reporting that in Banner Elk, “the kitchen furniture jingled severely, and a pile of fence rails was shaken down, in the presence of some men who were making hay.” Dugger concluded his article by writing that all of the recent shakings had given “us bright hopes of a volcano in this section of the State.” 

In July 1926, a reported earthquake in Mitchell County brought state geologist Dr. Collier Cobb to Toecane in Mitchell County, investigating a quake that had taken place the previous week. The geologist found crack foundations and chimneys, and at least one water pipeline, was broken. This is probably the same quake that Clayton McDonald Coffey experienced while living in Cary’s Flat. (Or, it might have been an earthquake centered near Waynesville in February 1916 that Coffey experienced. That was the largest quake that North Carolina has ever had within its borders.) There was another earthquake felt in the area on Nov. 2, 1928. 

In May 1957, Linville Falls resident M. T. Wright reported a shockwave at 9:25 a.m. on May 13. Another earthquake in 1969 or 1970 caused a crack in the cinderblock building occupied by the old Linville River Mercantile. 

While the fault lines in California get plenty of attention, many people might be surprised to learn than we have our own fault line here in Avery County. It is known as the Linville River Fault. Unlike the western part of the United States, where the fault zones are active, all of the fault lines in Western North Carolina are ancient and inactive. Often, the earthquakes that occur in our area are not actually along the fault lines. The Linville River Fault runs through the center of Avery County, and a large portion of Watauga, before heading down the mountain and into Wilkes County. Below Grandfather Mountain, the fault joins the Brevard Fault Zone. 

Forecasting an earthquake is hard to do. A few scientists said that a major earthquake would hit the East Coast in 2010, but they missed that mark. There are, however, on average 7,000 earthquakes a year all over the world with a magnitude of 4.0 or greater. So the chances are really high that we will feel those old mountains tremble again at some point in the near future.