Every February on its namesake holiday, Valentine, population 134, becomes something of a mail-order mecca. Thousands of romantics from around the world send the Valentine postmaster envelopes containing preaddressed and stamped Valentine’s Day greetings so they can be mailed to their loved ones with a handmade, Valentine, Texas, postmark.
The town in far West Texas holds a special place in many Valentine’s Day remembrances, but in the early 20th century, the town was famous for a terrifying breakup—one that had nothing to do with human hearts.
On August 16, 1931, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Texas was centered near Valentine. It started a little after 5:30 a.m., beginning as a tremble. The tremble lasted 72 seconds and turned into a rumble. By the time the shaking stopped, the magnitude-5.8 earthquake had damaged most concrete, brick and adobe structures in the town and toppled chimneys all over the area. Wooden structures suffered cracked ceilings and split walls. The schoolhouse separated and fell apart. The schoolhouse bell tower collapsed, and fissures appeared in the schoolyard. Several tombstones shifted and rotated in the local Protestant and Catholic cemeteries. And a huge crack appeared in the earth near the Protestant cemetery.
Concrete water tanks cracked and split. Local railroad crews reported that tracks appeared to rise slightly and then fall back into place.
No one was seriously injured, but everyone was affected.
Damage from the quake wasn’t limited to Valentine. There were landslides in the Van Horn, Chisos and Guadalupe mountains. Plaster fell in Alpine. Houses rocked in Fort Stockton. Buildings swayed in Pecos. Pendulum clocks stopped in Anson. And a two-story hotel in Lobo crumpled.
In San Antonio, dishes broke and chandeliers swayed. Tremors were felt in El Paso, Del Rio, Dallas (the Balcones fault, a remnant of a prehistoric quake, stretches from Del Rio to Dallas), Sherman, Bonham, Taylor, Austin and Lockhart. The earthquake was reported almost 1,000 miles away in St. Louis, where it was recorded on a seismograph at Saint Louis University.
There were rockslides in Picacho, New Mexico. Elsewhere in the state, windows rattled in Artesia, Carlsbad and Roswell. In Mexico, several people suffered minor injuries in sections of the town of Chihuahua and the state of Coahuila.
In the days following the earthquake, springs around Valentine became muddied, and folks began finding fish in the area wells and irrigation ditches. Some reliable wells soon declined or dried up altogether.
Like many Texas residents today concerned about the seismological effects of natural gas extraction by “fracking,” folks back then wondered whether the removal of vast quantities of oil from Texas land might be responsible for the earthquake. But University of Texas physics professor S. LeRoy Brown, who died in 1966, dismissed the notion, telling the Dallas Morning News days after the Valentine earthquake that wherever oil was being extracted, it was being replaced by water.
In January 1932, the Valentine school board received $25,000 in disaster aid from the state and began repairs on the school. Workers using three-quarter-inch iron rods and turnbuckles below the ceiling joists pulled the schoolhouse back together and then installed steel and concrete buttresses on the building’s exterior to reinforce the turnbuckles. The bell tower was never rebuilt.
Shortly after the earthquake, a local fortune-teller claimed that Valentine would be destroyed by another earthquake the following year. The citizens of Valentine were terrified by a minor tremor on August 16, 1932, but the prediction was incorrect.
On July 19, 1935, Valentine was rocked by another strong seismic event, and local railroad crews reported a 500-yard fissure, varying from 6 to 36 inches wide and of undetermined depth, 10 miles northwest of the town.
The last major quake centered in Valentine occurred on January 26, 1954. Though it measured 4.0 on the Richter Scale, no serious damage was reported, and no one was hurt.
Today, the repaired Valentine school building plays a big role in the town’s Valentine’s Day festivities. The handmade postmarks are designed by Valentine ISD high school students.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.