The most notorious such quakes ever to hit the United States were a series of three in New Madrid, Missouri, in the winter of 1811-12. The adventure started just after midnight on December 16 when people were awakened first by the noise of panicking farm animals (the restiveness of animals before quakes is not an old wives' tale, but is in fact well established, though not at all understood) and then by an almighty rupturing noise from deep within the Earth. Emerging from their houses, locals found the land rolling in waves up to three feet high and opening up in fissures several feet deep. A strong smell of sulfur filled the air. The shaking lasted for four minutes with the usual devastating effects to property.
Among the witnesses was the artist John James Audubon, who happened to be in the area. The quake radiated outward with such force that it knocked down chimneys in Cincinnati four hundred miles away and, according to at least one account, "wrecked boats in East Coast harbors and ... even collapsed scaffolding erected around the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C." On January 23 and February 4 further quakes of similar magnitude followed. New Madrid has been silent ever since—but not surprisingly, since such episodes have never been known to happen in the same place twice. As far as we know, they are as random as lightning. The next one could be under Chicago or Paris or Kinshasa. No one can even begin to guess.