There were no immediate reports of major damage or injuries from the quake, which the US Geological Survey said was centered in Mineral, Virginia, between Charlottesville and Richmond.
Washington office workers scurried into the streets after the quake, which lasted for about five seconds and sent items crashing to the floor from store and office shelves.
Tremors shook New York City office buildings, prompting evacuations of courthouses, City Hall and halting work at the World Trade Center construction site, officials and witnesses said.
It was not immediately clear if there was any damage or injuries in New York, but fire department and police officials in Dutchess County, north of New York City, reported structural damage to some buildings.
A spokesman for the city transit agency said the quake was felt but declined immediate comment on whether the subway system was affected.
Control towers at John F. Kennedy airport and Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey were also evacuated.
Buildings in Boston were evacuated, while a Reuters witness said the quake was felt as far away as Toronto.
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