How Reelfoot Lake Was Formed

by Martha Grassham Purcell

About two o'clock in the morning of December 16, 1811, the inhabitants of southwestern Kentucky, especially those in Fulton County, were aroused and alarmed by a most destructive earthquake shock that shook the Mississippi Valley throughout. It extended all along the Ohio beyond Pittsburgh, passed the Alleghenies, and died on the far-away coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

The first sign of the catastrophe was distant, rumbling sounds, succeeded by continued discharges as of unnumbered pieces of artillery. Then the earth rocked, chasms yawned, columns of coal, sand, and water shot up, while electric flashes, shooting through the otherwise impenetrable darkness, added horror to the scene. Twenty-seven distinct shocks were experienced before dawn. Then shock followed shock, the land was overshadowed by a dense, black cloud of vapor to which the light imparted a purplish tinge, but no sunbeam penetrated the pall that overhung all.

Lakes appeared where hills had been; elevations of land were found instead of lakes; the land in many places, miles in extent, was sunk below the level of the surrounding country. The current of the Mississippi was driven upstream for several hours, on account of an elevation in its bed; the waters boiled up in huge swells and violently tossed the boats thereon; sandbars gave way; huge trees crashed and disappeared in the maddening billows; the shores opened in wide fissures, closed, and threw huge jets of water, sand, and mud high above the treetops. The water of the river was changed to a reddish hue, thick with mud thrown up from its bottom, while the trembling surface was covered with huge masses of foam.

From this temporary barrier, made by the upheaval of the bottom and the sinking of the sandbars and banks, the river rose five or six feet in a few minutes; then the booming waters with redoubled fury rushed forward with resistless power and carried everything before them. Boats, with horror-struck crews, shot down the declivity "like arrows from the bow," and were overwhelmed or wrecked on snags, that had been thrown up from the bottom of the river, or were carried down in the vortexes. These shocks continued every day until December 21, and occasionally until February of the succeeding year.

It was during this extensive and exciting convulsion that Reelfoot Lake, in Fulton County, made its first appearance. This great and singular body of water was formed by sand, blown out of a chasm opened by the earthquake, damming the waters of a creek, which spread over the territory and formed a lake twenty feet deep, from three fourths to two and a half miles wide, and seventeen miles long. For many years the tops of immense trees could be seen in the water by boatmen as they hunted the waterfowls or cast line for the fish with which it abounds.