Shock and Awe

Think of deaths caused by earthquakes and the thought of helpless people trapped under crumbling ruins springs most readily to mind. However, the first recorded death in Australia attributable to an earthquake could be that of convict Edward Cormick (or Corbett) who was hanged on June 25, 1788, just five months after Sydney was established.

‘‘There is a report that Edward escaped into the bush on the 5th of June, 1788, but was so terrified by an earthquake that rocked Sydney on the 22nd June that he returned to the settlement and was hanged later that month,’’ says Clive Collins, senior seismologist with Geoscience Australia. ‘‘If this is true, then in a way this is the first fatality relating to an earthquake in Australia,’’ explains Clive, who is delivering an expose Earthquakes in our Backyard at tomorrow’s Geoscience Australia Open Day.

With the 3.7 magnitude quake that shook Canberra in the wee hours of April 20 this year still fresh in our minds, there’s likely to be no shortage of people lining up to hear what Clive has to say. ‘‘Over 500 people reported on our website that they felt the 20th of April tremor,’’ says Clive, who adds, ‘‘on a global scale we have been very lucky with how few deaths have been caused by earthquakes.’’

Apart from the 13 deaths caused by the 1989 Newcastle earthquake, two other earthquakes have resulted in fatalities. There were two deaths from heart attacks caused by the 1902 Warooka earthquake in South Australia, and a worker was killed when he was shaken off a railway bridge near Biggenden (central Queensland) during the 1935 Gayndah earthquake. ‘‘However, the latter is in some dispute as to whether it was really earthquake related, and some would dispute that heart attacks are earthquake fatalities,’’ explains Clive.

Interestingly, there may be a case of lives actually being saved by an earthquake in Australia. Apparently just after explorer Ernest Giles’s party had run out of water on December 15, 1873, in far eastern Western Australia, a significant earthquake (estimated to be magnitude 6.0) caused water to flow out of a dry spring, thus saving their lives.

‘‘It sounds far-fetched and unlikely, but makes a nice enough story to warrant some further research,’’ explains Clive, who receives all sorts of reports of unusual reports following quakes.

‘‘About 10 years ago we got a call from a lady at Lake George (which lies on a fault line) to Canberra’s north whose family had a lease which extended onto the lake bed. She said that for many weeks following a small quake in the area that her husband would hear strange gurgling sounds in the lake bed.’’

Prompted by Clive’s insights into Australian quakes, during the week I went on the hunt for images relating to local quakes.

One of the more striking photos I managed to dig up is of the St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Dalton (50 kilometres to the north of Canberra) which had the cross on its steeple knocked crooked by a magnitude 4.0 earthquake on August 9, 1984 (does anyone remember it?). Interestingly, the photo of the lop-sided cross is dated 1988, four years after the quake. I wonder when the cross returned to its upright position?

However, what really grabbed my attention while sifting through reams of old photos was an image held by the National Trust of Australia of a concrete fortress-like structure with minor earthquake damage. The building, General Legge’s Cranleigh Homestead, once stood near what is now one of Canberra’s busiest intersections on the corner of Southern Cross and Kingsford Smith drives in Latham. Although best remembered for a distinguished career in the army, General Legge was also one of Canberra’s earliest amateur geologists and in his informative article, ‘‘General Legge at Weetangera’’, (The Canberra Historical Journal, March 19, 1987), Chris Coulthard-Clark, reports that during the time Legge was Commandant at Duntroon ‘‘some of his cross country cavalry rides up into the Brindabellas invariably turned into geology excursions’’.

Further, ‘‘very likely it was his penchant for picking up rocks to examine that led him to discover a stone axe at Weetangera; evidently one of the earlier notable finds of Aboriginal implements in the district, it remained on display in a case at the Institute of Anatomy at Canberra for some years but now cannot be traced.’’

When Legge was retrenched in 1922, he turned his hand to farming in Belconnen, and in 1923 he had his homestead built from concrete blocks moulded from sand on the site. Given his interest in earth sciences it seems fitting that this image is arguably the earliest depicting earthquake damage in the Canberra area – the large wooden supports prominent in the photo were added to provide support after a Belconnen earthquake of an unknown date. It’s not certain if the homestead’s unusual design made it susceptible to quakes or not, but Chris Coulthard- Clark muses over its fortress-like facade: ‘‘This departure from the ordinary inevitably produced much comment within the small rural community which comprised Legge’s neighbours, including some good-natured speculation that the General still halfexpected an invasion and was taking his own precautions.’’

Even his wife wasn’t too keen on the homestead’s appearance and the wooden pergola-type structure featured in the photo was apparently added at Mrs Legge’s request ‘‘to soften the stark appearance of the building’’. General Legge and his wife died in 1947 and their dream homestead was demolished just a few years later. ACT Heritage recently erected a sign which tells the fascinating story of their doomed (they tried everything from pigs to potatoes to grazing) farming attempts. This sign is located among a stand of tall pines (remains of a windbreak planted by Legge) where some say the ghostly-image of an old man can sometimes be seen wandering among the pine needles.

So if you see a shadowy figure wielding a prospector’s pick and roaming the streets of Canberra on the weekend, it’s probably the 65-year-old ghost of General Legge making his way to Symonston for tomorrow’s Geoscience Australia Open Day.

Either that or he’s seeking revenge for whoever nicked his prized stone axe.

FACT FILE

Geoscience Australia Open Day: 10am-4pm, tomorrow, corner Jerrabomberra Avenue and Hindmarsh Drive, Symonston. Lots of free fun for the whole family – pan for gold, sieve for sapphires, view Australia in 3D or become a mineral detective. Clive Collins’ talk, Earthquakes in our Backyard, is at 1pm. For more information, phone: 6249 9111 or click here for a full program.

Old Cranleigh Homestead site: corner of Southern Cross and Kingsford Smith drives, Latham.

Did You Know? On October 14, 1968, the small town of Meckering, about 130 kilometres east of Perth, was destroyed by a 6.9 earthquake. Twenty people were injured, but incredibly, no one was killed.

Also this weekend... (18 and 19 August 2012) WEE JASPER NATURALLY

Despite its name, this is not a gathering of nudists, but rather a celebration of the natural wonders of this pretty valley just to the west of Canberra. Cave tours, village walks, communal bonfires, ranger-guided activities, bush astronomy and more. Events for all ages. Wee Jasper (incidentally the epicentre of the April 20, 2012, quake which rocked Canberra) is a 60-90 minute drive from Canberra via Uriarra Crossing (small section unsealed) or via Yass. I recommend going one way and coming back the other (and taking a map, and filling up with fuel before leaving Canberra). No matter which route you take, once you cross Mountain Creek you’ll be dazzled by the number of fossil beds lining the hillsides.

Did You Know? Dr Charlie Barton, who will be leading the karst (limestone landscape) walks around Wee Jasper (free, 10am and 2pm tomorrow, bookings essential on 6227 9626), is one of the world’s leading geo-magnetic scientists. Barton (who calls Wee Jasper home when not galavanting around the globe) discovered the South Magnetic Pole in December 2000 after it eluded the world’s most famous explorers for hundreds of years.

Don’t miss: Ian Cathles’ legendary fossil tours of the limestone outcrops of his property Cooradigbee. These eye-popping tours are only offered a couple of times a year and offer a rare opportunity to find (and replace) fish fossils in sediment beds where they were deposited more than 400 million years ago. Today and tomorrow, 10am and 2pm. Small charge. Bookings essential on 6227 9634. Don’t forget: A picnic. There are limited food options available in the village, so take your favourite blanket, a couple of chairs and basket of treats to munch on. More: Phone 6227 9626 or visit www.visitweejasper.com.au

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