50th anniversary of 6.6 Fallon earthquake remembered

It was 4:15 a.m. on July 6, 1954 when Bob and Smiley Kent awoke to a chorus of cackles from their chicken brood, Bob's latest get- rich-quick scheme.

"I kinda came to and thought, 'what's that all about?' " the 76-year-old Smiley said.

A moment later, an unnerving whistle-like sound hovered in the air. It wasn't coming from any place in particular. It was just there. Then the refrigerator started to "dance" all over the kitchen of what Smiley calls her "little wooden shack." Then the house itself started to shake.

A magnitude 6.6 temblor had just struck near Rainbow Mountain, less than 25 miles east of Fallon.

Wanting to check on the state of their family business, a grocery store on Maine Street, a then-28-year-old Bob and 26-year-old Smiley loaded their 2-year-old son into the car and drove into town. So did everyone else.

Telephones and electricity were knocked out all over the Lahontan Valley and the entire startled populace of Churchill County, it seemed, wanted to check on everyone else.

"It was pitch dark and everybody was up and driving around," Bob said with a laugh.

There were no deaths and no serious injuries from the quake, but come daylight, valley residents would find there was plenty of damage.

Some chimneys toppled and the brick walls of several Fallon structures crumbled and fell, sometimes onto neighboring buildings. The worst of the damage befell what was then Fallon's economic base - its farms.

The Coleman Dam, just south of Fallon, broke and flooded several fields. Others were ruined by what scientists call soil liquefaction. The shaking of the earth brought water gurgling to the surface, churning the soil on its way.

Being a hotbed of geothermal activity, the surfacing water throughout Churchill County was sometimes hot.

The commotion of tectonic plates crashing into one another far underground also caused the valley's irrigation ditches to overflow, flooding several farms. The ditches filled with sand, ensuring the 1954 irrigation season had come to an unprecedented early end.

Whole crops were lost. Damage was estimated at several hundred thousand dollars, according to 1954 newspaper reports from the Fallon Eagle and the Fallon Standard.

A week after the tremor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated Churchill County a federal disaster area.

While the most substantial damage was reported in the farming district of Stillwater, the least was reported from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone reservation. That was mostly because, well, there wasn't much there to damage.

"A lot of (the houses) didn't have water or electricity yet," said Francis Hooper, who was 20 years old and sleeping on the floor of her family's home when the quake hit.

"There wasn't much damage to our house, it being one of the little shacks out there," she said.

Most of the reservation's little wooden homes just rolled with the earth, Hooper said, but it was still frightening.


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