#OnThisDay: 1886 Charleston Earthquake

When I felt an earthquake on August 9, 2020, I’d already planned to blog about the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake today. That recent earthquake was a 5.1 magnitude quake. The epicenter was near Sparta, North Carolina, about 100 miles from where I live. The bed shaking woke me up.

We haven’t felt many damaging earthquakes in North Carolina. In fact, there are only 23 damaging earthquakes of record that were felt in the state in recorded history. Eight of those were centered in North Carolina. I’ve felt three of them.

Charleston Earthquake Experienced in Charlotte, NC Area

I’ve heard of the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake all my life. I grew up seeing visible evidence of the event when I visited a friend who lived in a house in my community that was built in the early 1870s. It’s a sturdy two-story brick house. It’s my understanding that after the Charleston Earthquake, which was felt here – some 200 miles from Charleston — two iron bars were added horizontally inside the back exterior wall of the house. The bars were connected in an overlapping hook configuration in front of a window in my friend’s bedroom.

Although it was later determined that these iron bars did not increase the stability of the wall, the bars were left there as a piece of history. In the 1960s, the bars were visible inside the room from wall-to-wall. When the house was renovated some years later, extra wall insulation was installed which necessitated the wall being extended several inches into the room. The iron bars were left in place, but are now only visible at the window.

US Geological Survey Report

The state of South Carolina has 10 to 15 earthquakes annually, but only three to five of them are felt by people. The magnitude 7.2 August 31, 1886 Charleston Earthquake remains the most powerful earthquake recorded in the eastern part of the United States.

Typical window box in Charleston, SC. Photo by Delaney Boyd on Unsplash.com

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), hardly a structure in Charleston was left undamaged. Property damage was estimated at $5-6 million, which translates roughly to $138-165 million today. Structural damage was reported hundreds of miles away in central Alabama, central, Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia. People as far away as Boston, Massachusetts; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Cuba; and Bermuda reported feeling the earthquake.

Railroad tracks were damaged for a 50-mile radius. Railroad tracks several miles northwest of Charleston were mangled by lateral and vertical displacement, forming S-shaped curves and longitudinal movement.

“The formation of sand craterlets and the ejection of sand were widespread in the epicentral area, but surface faulting was not observed,” according to the USGS. That report continued: “Many acres of ground were overflowed with sand, and craterlets as much as 6.4 meters across were formed. In a few locations, water from the craterlets spouted to heights of about 4.5 to 6 meters. Fissures 1 meter wide extended parallel to canal and stream banks. A series of wide cracks opened parallel to the Ashley River, and several large trees were uprooted when the bank slid into the river.” (Source: Abridged from Seismicity of the United States, 1568-1989 (Revised), by Carl W. Stover and Jerry L. Coffman, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.)

Interesting Details Noted in 2001 Encyclopedia

The following was printed in Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, by David Ritchie and Alexander E. Gates, Ph.D. in 2001: “The earthquake apparently was most intense 12 miles west of Charleston, where large amounts of sand and water spewed from fissures in the ground.” It was preceded by lesser shocks earlier that summer. The August 31 major quake was “accompanied by a noise that later was compared to the sound of steam escaping from a boiler or of fast-moving street traffic at close range…. Reports indicate that some interesting events in distant parts of the country coincided with the earthquake, including a reduction in the yield of natural gas wells in Pennsylvania and the reactivation of a geyser in Wyoming’s Yellowstone valley after four years of inactivity.”

September 3, 1886 report in The Atlanta Constitution

This extensive newspaper article is a prime example of the flowery language that dominated newspapers of that era. It took some diligence to sift through the fluff and find the facts.

The full-page article describes the terror experienced by the residents of Augusta, Georgia, where people took to spending two nights in the streets or in the graveyard. (I’m guessing the graveyard was a place in town without trees that could fall on people if another earthquake occurred.) People were frustrated by not being able to get from Georgia to Charleston due to the disrupted rail lines and breaks in the roads. Travel by sea was also disrupted as ship captains avoided Charleston as long as aftershocks continued.

The 285-acre Langley Pond in Aiken County, SC (approximately 130 miles west of Charleston) was created in 1854 by the construction of a dam. The 400-foot long $50,000 dam broke during the earthquake and the release of the water in the pond (which deserved the designation “lake”) wiped out the forest downstream. A train track over a nearby pond was mangled. An approaching train engineer could not see far enough ahead to avoid crashing his train into the water. He was badly injured and his fireman drowned.

The newspaper correspondent eventually made his way across South Carolina to the village of Summerville, about 25 miles from Charleston. It appeared to the writer that Summerville had taken the brunt of the earthquake. There were numerous fissures in the ground through which sand and water smelling of sulfur continue to erupt after the correspondent arrived. It was reported that in Summerville, a roar like thunder was heard for a half hour after the big quake.

Upon reaching Charleston, the newspaper correspondent reported finding bricks and other construction debris everywhere in the streets and all open places and railway cars packed with people sleeping or just trying to survive. The writer feared Charleston had been struck a mortal blow. There, he found two-foot high stacks of blue mud that had erupted from fissures in the ground. He also found a citizenry not planning to go into a building until forced to by the chill of winter.

September 9, 1886 report in The (Concord, NC) Times

This weekly newspaper some 200 miles northwest of Charleston, SC gave the following details of how residents in that small town experienced the August 31, 1886 earthquake:

“The first shock was very violent, throwing down chimneys, turning over lamps, causing plastering to fall from walls, houses to crack and sway, and creating a commotion that frightened everybody as they had not been frightened before. This shock lasted about three minutes and a half. People rushed pell mell into the street, half dressed and badly frightened. In a few minutes almost the whole town was astir. Fifteen minutes after the first shock another came, but of much less violence than the first. At another interval of about the same length a third was felt, still less severe. Some say they felt as many as five shocks here.”

The article went on to report the following from the gold mining operation at Gold Hill in Rowan County, NC: “At Gold Hill the hands in the mines when the shock came were just shifting, that is the day hands were coming out and the night hands going in. Some of the mines caved in, and it was certainly a fortunate thing that no one was in them.”

Other Newspaper Reports

Another newspaper reported that a thick dust fell in Wilmington, NC on the night of the Charleston Earthquake. “That all the iron in the city lamp posts, store-fronts, and engines was highly magnetized. It is also said that several engines running on roads in this State were highly magnetized, though in no case does the earthquake shock appear to have been felt by people on the trains.”

“A report received to-day from one of the keepers who was on duty in the tower at Cape Lookout lighthouse says the shocks were terrible and the lighthouse rocked to and fro. The keepers were badly frightened.”

Charleston Post and Courier Newspaper Article

In a newspaper articles by Dave Munday, originally published June 11, 2007 and updated December 8, 2016, it was reported that 1886 Charleston Earthquake research was still taking place in the Colonial Dorchester Historical Site by Pradeep Talwani, Director of the South Carolina Seismic Network at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. In excavations done there, evidence of a sand and water geyser eruption was found; however, Talwani suspects this geyser was perhaps from an earthquake in the 1300s.

Photo of a Charleston, SC street scene by Cameron Stewart on Unsplash.com

Talwani’s research has found that a major earthquake hits the Charleston area approximately every 500 years. According to this newspaper article, it is estimated that the 1886 Charleston Earthquake measured perhaps 7.6 in magnitude.

In Conclusion

It is stunning to think about what shape Charleston, SC was in at the end of the Civil War in 1865 and then to consider the extensive damage done to the city and to much of South Carolina just 21 years later by an earthquake the likes of which the area had not seen before and has not seen since.

Since my last blog post

I’m adjusting to a life of caring for a wonderful little dog with diabetes and a host of other health problems. Life will be a bit of a rollercoaster for a while. I’ve decreased my book reading expectations.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have uninterrupted creative time.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, please wear a mask out of respect for others you may unknowingly infect. Be safe. We’re all in this together.

Janet

9 thoughts on “#OnThisDay: 1886 Charleston Earthquake

  1. Great research, Janet, and loads of interesting facts. Thanks for sharing it—you make history fascinating. I was surprised by the sand spurting, although maybe I shouldn’t be. I don’t know much about earthquakes, so I don’t know if that is common or not. I was also interested in the blue mud! I wonder if the Cape Lookout lighthouse suffered any cracks. I don’t know if you were already interested in history when you saw the iron bars in your friend’s house. That is certainly the kind of thing that can grab the interest of children and young people and make a lasting impression. You made a good point there at the end—this devastation coming so soon after that of the Civil War. It seems like Charleston has more than its fair share. I think it was Hugo that hit it so hard and then came on up to Charlotte. I hope your sweet dog is being helped by the shots. Certainly s/he is by the TLC!

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  2. Thank you so much, Hallie. I enjoyed doing this research. From what I read, apparently the wet sand spurts from the ground were due to the water table being so high in the Charleston area. That and the blue mud were new facts for me. I credit my fourth grade teacher for making history come alive for me. We studied Jamestown and Williamsburg. She had the father of one of my classmates build a pillory so each of us could experience what it was like (sort of) to be punished in public during colonial times. Yes, it was Hugo that hit Charleston and then crashed through Charlotte. An experience I’ll never forget! Thank you for the kind well wishes for my dog, Silas. He’s a sweet rescue dog and a real joy. He’s improving.

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  3. I know, Diane. I can’t imagine a major earthquake like that one on the east coast! I, too, hope it never happens again, but that recent 5.1 quake in Sparta, NC has us a bit nervous.

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