Mixing Memory

The Day the Mississippi Flowed Backwards

OK, this has nothing to do with cognitive science, but today’s quake felt throughout the southeast reminded me of a little history that some people may not be aware of. In Tennessee, there is only one large natural lake, Reelfoot Lake, in the far western part of the state just south of Kentucky, near the Mississippi River. It’s an exceptionally beautiful place, with bald eagles and bald cypress trees (in the picture below), but what’s really cool about it is how it was formed.


In 1811 and 1812, there were dozens of earthquakes, including 4 very large ones, in thea area around west Tennessee, southwest Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and southern Illinois, culminating in the New Madrid earthquake on February 7, 1812, which is thought to have been the strongest earthquake in the continental United States since Europeans settled here. Legend has it that this earthquake was so strong that it caused the mighty Mississippi River to flow backwards. Water overflowed the banks, and formed Reelfoot Lake. This is the story that everyone learns growing up in Tennessee, and that the park rangers tell you when you visit the lake. Sure, it’s unlikely that the Mississippi actually flowed backwards, but the earthquakes did radically change the landscape over a very short period of time, causing water to flow into what is now the lake. When water levels drop, you can see the tree stumps from the forest that, before the quakes, had occupied the area.

The scary thing is that scientists have been saying for years that the New Madrid fault is due for another big quake. In 1811-1812, the region was sparesly populated, and while there aren’t good figures, the damage was minor relative to the size of the quakes. Can you imagine, though, what would happen to a city like Memphis if a quake that measured 8.0 on the Richter scale occurred just to the north?


  1. #1 Dan R.
    September 10, 2006

    As someone who lives in the mid-south (about 100 miles SE of Memphis), I apparently am dense as I missed the quake today…

    That aside, earthquake “proofing” has been a part of the building codes throughout the region at least since the mid 80’s — and probably further back in larger areas like Memphis. I expect that most newer and recently remodeled buildings would be ok barring something of exceptional strength.

    That said, many areas around Memphis are still fairly rural — and many probably don’t have building codes at all.

  2. #2 MadRocketScientist
    September 10, 2006

    My understanding of the phenomena was that the Mississippi riverbed heaved so violently during the quake as to cause the river in the area of the quake to flow backwards and over the banks. So in essence it really did flow backwards, if only for a minute or so.

  3. #3 Evan
    September 14, 2006

    You ask “Can you imagine…”

    Check out the novel The Rift by Walter Williams.

  4. #4 Denise
    May 22, 2009

    I know this is a very old entry but I’m headed to KY, TN and that part of MO the first week of June. Here’s hoping “the big one” doesn’t occur while I’m there. 😉

  5. #5 john schneider
    June 7, 2010

    I am in search of my great grandfather on my fathers side: my dads mothers father ( my grandfather) was named Powhatan Gordon Freeland born in Reel Foot Lake, (hopefully not literally) tenn Dec 3, 1863

    Any connections known?

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