On January 9, 1857, the largest earthquake in California’s recorded history centered along the San Andreas Fault in the Frazier Mountain area. According to today’s measurements it would have been approximately a 7.9 to 8.3 earthquake. Studies indicate that the fracture was some 200 miles long and 10 to 30 miles deep centering along the San Andreas Fault from the Antelope Valley in Northern Los Angeles County to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern Kern County.
Fort Tejon, about five miles from the Fault, was one of the major population centers of Southern California at the time, though few injuries were reported. The newly built adobe building of the Fort were badly damaged, however, and the soldiers had to move back into tents until the structures could be rebuilt.
Right on the Fault was Reed’s Rancho, in the present area of Gorman, where a woman was killed. Also on the Fault, was a logging operation where lumber was milled for use in the building of Fort Tejon. The news report from the Santa Barbara Gazette read: “At the mill some twelve miles west of Tejon the shock was very heavy. It tore up large trees and twisted off branches, threw people on the ground, and when over, caused a general stampede for the Fort, upon the supposition, we suppose, that that place was as safe as any and that misery loves company.” A circular corral already in place in Cuddy Valley – also on the Fault – was moved to the new shape of an ‘S’.
These low hills leading to Frazier Park have been pushed up by recent earthquake activity, possibly over the last 10,000 years. Similar low hills can be seen in the west Antelope valley and along the Gorman Post Road.
There had been numerous warning shocks for weeks, even months, prior to January of 1857, though few of the then newcomers to California recognized the significance of them. The surgeon at Fort Tejon, who kept such records, recorded an average of thirty shocks a month for the first six months following the quake – which no doubt accounted for the large number of desertions in the year that followed.
The Ridge Route Communities Museum has an extensive file of information and news reports from throughout the State on the effects of the quake – even as far as the Colorado River where the water ran backwards. The public is invited to visit the museum to access the file. Also the book, A View From the Ridge Route: The Fort Tejon Era, available at the museum, covers the 1857 Earthquake in detail.
Additional information may be found in “A View from the Ridge Route” series