The 1868 Arica Tsunami


Presently located within Chile, the city of Arica has the sort of multi national past common to many cities located near the border between two nations with a less than friendly relationship, historically. The land along the extreme northern coast of Chile, including Arica, was a part of Peru from the country's inception until the later part of the nineteenth century, when the War of the Pacific broke out. During the war, Peru and Chile fought an off and on series of battles from 1879 to 1929. When the war finally ended in defeat for Peru, the country was forced by treaty to ceed Arica, and the surrounding lands to Chile. For our purposes however, at the time of the 1868 tsunami Arica still belonged to Peru.


On August 16, 1868, a magnitude 8.5 earthquake struck the area of the Peru-Chile Trench located just off of Peru's extreme southern coast. The large earthquake that reduced the port of Arica to rubble, also generated a huge trans-pacific tsunami that struck Arica shortly after the earthquake ended. Three navy ships were anchored in the port at the time of the earthquake; two American, the warship US Watree and storeship Fredonia; and one Peruvian, the warship Americana. Accounts from crew members of the two American ships who survived the tsunami give the following details. Several minutes after the quake the first tsunami wave arrived at Arica as a rapid rise of water, followed by a fierce withdrawal. The second wave estimated at 90 feet, was the largest. Its advance dashed the hapless Fredonia to pieces on the rocks of a harbor island, killing all but two crew members. The second wave snapped the moorings of both the Americana and the Watree, and carried the two ships far inland, where they eventually ran aground. When the ocean finally returned to normal the Watree was, amazingly, still in near-perfect condition.... sitting on the beach 430 yards from the water!

Despite the height and ferocity of the tsunami, the Watree reported only one casualty. The Americana however, was not as lucky, loosing 83 men including the captain. The tsunami was disastrous for the port of Arica as well, where an estimated 25,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. The waves literally swept the low-lying parts of the town clean, removing all traces, including the foundations, of the structures that once existed there.

In total, the 1868 tsunami caused an estimated 300 million dollars in damage, and killed as many as 70,000 people along the South American coast. Other Peruvian cities damaged by the tsunami include Ilo/Pisco, where the tsunami killed 20 people and washed away both towns; and Tambo, where the waves destroyed the town killing an estimated 500 people. The cities of Callao, Mollendo and Trujillo were also damaged by the tsunami. The tsunami caused considerable damage along the Chilean coastline as well, damaging ships in Caldera, and completely submerging the city of Iquique, killing 150 people.

Other locations across the Pacific also suffered damage from this tsunami. Hawaii was hit particularly hard, were runup reached 4.5 meters at Hilo, causing severe damage to the waterfront. Further west, the tsunami generated 1.5 meters of runup in Japan, and flooded the harbor of Yokohama. The tsunami also generated sizable runup and some damage in New Zealand, where heights reached 5.4 and 4.5 meters in the towns of Lyttleton and Oamaru, respectively. Other location reporting the tsunami include California, Oregon, Australia, Western Somoa, the Austral Islands, Chatham Islands, and the always tsunami prone Marquesas Islands.

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