Tag Archives: earthquakes

A Man For All Seasons

John E. Younglove and his weather records for March

When John E. Younglove (1826-1917) came to Bowling Green in 1844, the town gained a curious and inquiring citizen.  Over his long life as a druggist, town trustee and cemetery commissioner, Younglove collected rare books, archaeological specimens and tales of local history.  He also collected weather.

From 1849-50 and 1851-52, Younglove kept daily records of temperature (four readings a day), “clearness of the sky,” wind, and clouds.  A member of a national network of volunteer observers, he forwarded his data to the Smithsonian Institution for use in its new meteorology program, then tackling “the problem of American storms” and how to predict them. 

Younglove added other remarks to his notations, usually concerning the intensity of rainfall.  But his entries for June and July 1849 included another phenomenon that deserved close attention.  Early in the year, a wave of cholera had begun to make its way from India and across Europe.  Everyone knew that it would soon arrive in America – and that the nation was unprepared.  On June 9, 1849, Younglove’s weather notes recorded three deaths from cholera, “the first we have had.”  In a month characterized by high heat and excessive rain, the steady drip of deaths continued: one on the 14th, one on the 19th, two on the 22nd, five on the 23rd, and so on. 

Younglove’s record-keeping grew less frequent until 1886, when he resumed in earnest.  Through 1901, he filled his ledger with four-times-daily temperature readings, kept for the Department of Agriculture’s Climatological Service.  In addition to contemporary records, he preserved stories of weather and atmospheric phenomena gathered from his own experience and that of old-timers: the reverberations of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake; a magnificent meteor shower in 1833; the 18-below-zero day in February 1835 and the 24-below-zero chill in January 1877; the total eclipse of 1869; an 1870 tornado that destroyed Cave City; the 28-inch snowfall that buried Bowling Green in February 1886; and various record-breaking storms, killer frosts, locust infestations and river rises.  When an even deadlier visitation of cholera arrived in 1854, courtesy of the infected members of a travelling circus company, Younglove suspected that the outbreak was made worse by heavy rainfall during a performance “which caused the steam to arise” inside the crowded tent.  His chronicle was wide-ranging and unique: in annual narratives covering 1870 through 1909, Younglove looked back on each year’s weather patterns as they brought prosperity or hardship to the gardeners and farmers of his community – and formed a backdrop, in a few cases, to serious public health crises.

John E. Younglove’s meteorological record is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The Earth Yawned”

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

The earthquake that struck Haiti two years ago today reminds us that generations throughout history have experienced the physical and psychological destruction accompanying this violent act of nature.  For example, from December 1811 to February 1812, four major quakes originating along the New Madrid fault in what is now Missouri caused extensive property damage, landslides, and geographic upheavals so extraordinary that for several hours the Mississippi River appeared to reverse course.  Some of the responses of Kentuckians to the New Madrid earthquake can be found in the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.

In Bowling Green, druggist John E. Younglove preserved the comments of old-timers who had experienced the disaster.  The earthquake “was felt here for several days,” they remembered, “the houses shaking so much that the dishes in the cupboards and shelves rattled and caus[ed] great consternation among the inhabitants of this region.”  Many citizens were so terrified “that they met in the churches for Prayer and supplication.”

In February 1812, Joseph Underwood wrote to his uncle in Barren County from Lexington where, he reported, “the repeated shocks of earthquakes have alarmed the timorous inhabitants of this place.”  A man told Underwood that his wife had not eaten anything for days.  “I suppose she was under the dreadful apprehension of being swallowed up by the opening of the earth.”  Stories circulated of night watchmen hearing “aerial songs,” voices from above “which seemed to portend an awful desolation,” but Underwood suspected only “a base attempt to impose on the credulity of the people, who are now ready to believe in and wonder at miracles.”

Twenty-five years after the quakes, Betsy Taliaferro passed by the town of New Madrid on her steamboat journey from Louisiana to Versailles, Kentucky.  She feared coming near “that awful place” where “the earth yawned,” and found it “scarcely improved” since the disaster.  The real tragedy, however, was not property damage but damage to the human psyche.  “What must the inhabitants have experienced during that awful period!” Betsy wrote in her journal.  “That the inhabitants were horror stricken is not to be wondered at, but that they were anything but lunatics afterwards is.”

Click on the names to download finding aids for the above collections.  For more about our collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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