Gazette Sea Foam: Tuesday's earthquake reminder of local history

August 29, 2011 

Thanks to Thomas Clark for sharing the story of the earthquake that rattled the Lowcountry 125 years ago this week. Clark is a freelance writer based in New Jersey who specializes in historical events.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

By Thomas Clark

The last day of August was expected to pass quietly for Charleston. A few days earlier a hurricane had tracked to the east, sparing the city and South Carolina. The weather was hot and steamy, probably from the tropical air mass left behind by this recent close call. But the night promised to be tranquil with no hint of storms in either the western or southern skies.

As some folks were returning from church services that Thursday evening, they described the 9 o'clock hour as having such "a profound stillness in the air that it provoked general remark."

The date was Aug. 31, 1886, and that stillness would be shattered forever moments later.

At approximately 9:50 p.m., a gentle vibration shook Charleston and the surrounding countryside. This lasted several seconds and then intensified. What happened next is best described in these headlines:

  • "Sixty Killed; The Earthquake Shock Last Night Very Destructive at Charleston," the Evening Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), Sept. 1, 1886

  • "Horror! Charleston Almost Obliterated; Such Scenes of Death and Ruin Never Known," The Fort Wayne Sentinel, Sept. 1, 1886

  • "Half the County Shaken; The South Carolina City Entirely Cut Off From the Outside World; Wires and Bridges All Down," Syracuse Daily Standard, Sept. 1, 1886

  • "Death, Ruin. Bodies Constantly Taken from Debris. All the People Living Put Out Doors," The Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 2, 1886

  • 'UTTER RUINS'

    An eyewitness recalled the event some years later:

    "The temblor came lightly with a gentle vibration of the houses as when a cat trots across the floor; but a very few seconds of this and it began to come in sharp jolts and shocks which grew momentarily more violent until buildings were shaken as toys. Frantic with terror, the people rushed from the houses, and in so doing many lost their lives from falling chimneys or walls. With one mighty wrench, which did most of the damage, the shock passed. It had been accompanied by a low, rumbling noise, unlike anything ever heard before, and its duration was about one minute.

    "No need to tell of the horrors of that moment or of those succeeding. The fact that lighter shocks continued at frequent intervals throughout the long, dreary night kept the nerves of all keyed to such a high tension that it is not strange that several persons lost their reason.

    "There were no electric lights in those days, and the streets were illuminated with gas. The people gathered in the public parks and squares and there in the dim light brave men and women gave help to the injured and dying. Soon several fires added their horror to this tragedy and much damage was done before they were under control.

    "It was not until the next day that the people began to realize the extent of the calamity that had befallen them. Then it was learned that not a building in the city had escaped injury in greater or less degree. Those of brick and stone suffered most. Many were down, more were roofless, or the walls had fallen out, all chimneys gone, much crockery, plaster and furniture destroyed. St. Michael's Church, the pride of the city since 1761, was a wreck, its tall steeple lying in the street. It seemed on the first survey that all public buildings and the principal business blocks were utter ruins. Most of them had to be torn down and were rebuilt."

    PERSPECTIVE

    The earthquake measured between magnitude 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter scale. It damaged 2,000 of Charleston's buildings, costing between $6 million and $8 million in property damage. Hardly a structure went undamaged; by some estimates seven of every eight were casualties -- many sustaining significant damage. Somewhere between 60 and 105 individuals died that day.

    Interestingly, prior to 1886 Charleston had not experienced any noteworthy earthquake activity. However this dormancy may have contributed to the severity of the tremor. The earth had been holding back this terrific pressure perhaps for centuries until it could no longer contain itself.

    The "Charleston Earthquake of 1886" as it is known today is one of the most powerful quakes to have ever occurred in the Southeastern United States. Its affects were felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and New Orleans. Cuba and Bermuda also felt its reach.

    Today the Charleston area lies in one of the most seismically active spots along the East Coast: two steeply dipping faults near Summerville and Bowman.

    And the U.S. Geological Survey continues to measure micro-earthquake activity nearby today. They believe this seismic activity may be a continuation of the 1886 aftershock series.

    Ominously, 125 years later, the earth still sends reminders to us to not forget that terrible last day of August 1886.

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