Home | All Almanac Topics | Earthquakes

Great Fort Tejon Earthquake, 1857

Earthquake Damaged Mission Santa Cruz Church, 1857

Damaged Mission Santa Cruz church, not long after the 1857 earthquake, about 229 miles northwest of Fort Tejon. Contributed by Mrs. Joseph Bishop, 1874.

The Great Fort Tejon Earthquake of January 9, 1857 was one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in the United States that left an incredible surface rupture scar more than 220 miles in length along the San Andreas fault. It is estimated to have had a Richter Scale magnitude of 7.9 to 8.0. This magnitude ranks as a "Great Quake" where, in heavily populated areas, tremendous destruction and loss of life occurs (or about 20 times the magnitude and 89 times the strength of the 1994 Northridge earthquake). Yet, despite the destructive power of this monster, only two people were reported to have lost their lives. A woman at Reed's Ranch near Fort Tejon was killed by the collapse of an adobe house and an elderly man had fallen dead in the Los Angeles area. Southern California in 1857 was sparsely populated, especially in the areas most strongly shaken. This fact and good fortune kept loss of life to a minimum. Nevertheless, the effects of the earthquake were quite dramatic, even frightening, destroying property as far away as Santa Cruz. Were the Fort Tejon shock occur today, the damage would easily run into the billions of dollars and loss of life would probably be substantial. Some present day communities that lie on or near the 1857 rupture area are Wrightwood, Palmdale, Frazier Park, and Taft. Today, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates a seven percent chance of a similarly-sized or greater earthquake for the Los Angeles area within the next 30 years.

Damage due to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Photo.