Quito, Ecuador, the site of many powerful earthquakes through the years, suffers one of its worst when a tremor kills 5,000 people and destroys some of the most famous buildings in South America, on this day in 1859.
Quito’s history of earthquakes in modern times began with a monster tremor on February 4, 1797. Not only did an estimated 40,000 people in the city perish, but the quake activated the Cotopaxi volcano. This led, in turn, to lava raining down on the town of Ambato. Sixty years later, Quito had been rebuilt and little was remembered about the devastating quake of 1797.
But, at 8:30 a.m. on March 22, nearly six full minutes of violent shaking struck the city. Buildings, churches and homes throughout the city were demolished by the tremor. Some of the area’s most prominent buildings collapsed, including the Government Palace, the Archepiscopal Palace, the Chapel of El Sagrario and the Temple of the Augustines. Despite the loss of so many structures, the death toll was not as high as it could have been. Coming at 8:30 in the morning, the quake was just late enough that most of the residents had left their homes, where they would have been most vulnerable.
Following this disaster, Quito was not hit again by a major earthquake until August 1949, when a tremor south of the city killed 6,000 and left 100,000 people homeless.