After nearly five years of journeying aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin found himself in March of 1835 becalmed in the seas off Valparaiso, Chile. He took the opportunity to write letters to friends and relatives, including this letter to his sister Caroline.
My dear Caroline,
We now are becalmed some leagues off Valparaiso and instead of growling any longer at our ill fortune, I begin this letter to you. ... The voyage has been grieviously too long; we shall hardly know each other again; independent of these consequences, I continue to suffer so much from sea-sickness, that nothing, not even geology itself can make up for the misery and vexation of spirit. ...
We are now on our road from Concepcion. The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February. I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili (sic). It is no use attempting to describe the ruins--it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld. The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles and lines of bricks, tiles and timbers-- it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels builts of sticks and reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down and these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6-10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit. How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses and all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time. The shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood. I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England--A Fuegian Savage--Tropical Vegetation--and the ruins of Concepcion. It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.
This image shows a four-story brick building on the corner of Third and Mission streets in San Francisco following the 1865 earthquake. It appeared in The Daily Alta California, and is probably the very same building Twain describes as "sprung outward like a door" in the above quote.
Not all major earthquakes leave large cities destroyed. On March 26, 1872, a large earthquake struck the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The famed naturalist, John Muir, was in Yosemite Valley at the time.