The 1902 Los Alamos Earthquakes: The Evacuation

Predicting earthquakes has proven to be more difficult than scientists had anticipated several decades ago, but even more difficult than predicting earthquakes is predicting the reactions of people following an earthquake. After every sizeable earthquake, several sizeable rumors are born--and the Los Alamos earthquakes were no exception.

Shortly after the largest earthquake occurred in the early morning of Thursday, July 31, a rumor swept Los Alamos that the president of the University of California had been contacted by telephone, and had recommended residents leave the town "at the earliest opportunity." Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the town's residents did so, leaving the next day by horse and by train.

In the next several days, it was pointed out that the president of the University of California was on vacation, and could not have been reached by telephone. Apparently it was Eugene Hilgard, the Dean of the Agriculture College at U.C. Berkeley, who had been contacted. He later denied recommending that people leave the area.

An article in the Santa Maria Times of August 9 described the situation at Los Alamos after the initial scare had died down:

Los Alamos is quiet and serene again, and its people are busy trying to size up who the biggest liars are. Some blame the newspapers, while others blame their neighbors, but all are agreed on one thing, and that is that they were badly scared. Some of the college professors are now kept busy denying reported interviews which evidently placed them in no enviable light regarding their knowledge and learning of seismic disturbances.

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