#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

No Place for Preacher’s Son?

Today’s blog post is an edited local history newspaper column I wrote for the August 23, 2006 edition of Harrisburg Horizons newspaper, Harrisburg, North Carolina. Appearing in the newspaper as “Pioneer Mills:  No Place for a Preacher’s Son,” it paints a picture of the Rocky River and Pioneer Mills communities in Cabarrus County in the 1870s.

Manse wasn’t ready!

The Rev. Joseph B. Mack came from Charleston, South Carolina in 1871 to be the pastor of Rocky River Presbyterian Church. When he and his family arrived, the manse the congregation was building for his family to live in was not completed.

Church members Robert Harvey Morrison and his wife, the former Mary Ann Stuart, moved their family into a tenant house and gave the new minister’s family their home in the Pioneer Mills community. This was no small sacrifice because the manse was not completed until 1873! The Morrisons’s two youngest children, an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son were still in the household, and Mr. and Mrs. Morrison were in their 50s.

Robert Harvey Morrison House
Robert Harvey Morrison Home, built circa 1846. (Photograph taken by Janet Morrison, May 3, 2008.)

The Robert Harvey Morrison home was built as early as 1846 when he inherited the land from his father. The house and its numerous out-buildings have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1990.

In case you’re wondering

Robert Harvey Morrison was a relative of mine but not a direct ancestor. In the 1800s my part of the family didn’t live in grand houses like the one pictured. Gold was never found on the property my part of the family owned. There was a gold mine on the land that Robert Harvey Morrison inherited from his father.

Pioneer Mills was a gold-mining boom town in the early- to mid-19th century. It was apparently still a rip-roarin’ place in 1871.

Dr. William Mack’s memories in 1912

A special homecoming was held at the church on August 12, 1912. Rev. Mack’s son, Dr. William Mack, was unable to attend. He sent his regrets from New York and put some of his childhood memories on paper. Fortunately for us, his letter to homecoming master of ceremonies Mr. Morrison Caldwell was printed in the Concord newspapers the following week.

Dr. Mack wrote, “My first Rocky River recollection is of getting off the train at Harris Depot [now, Harrisburg, NC] and going in the dark to the home of Uncle Solomon Harris.” I don’t believe Dr. Mack was related to Mr. Harris. This was probably a term of endearment and respect.

He continued, “There we met Ed and ‘Little Jim’ (to distinguish him from ‘Big Jim,’ the son of Mr. McKamie Harris.) Uncle Solomon had the biggest fire-place I ever saw; it seemed as big as a barn door.

“Shortly afterwards we went to Pioneer Mills….  There… was the old Gold mine, Barnhardt’s store and McAnulty’s shoemaker shop…. While there I decided to become either a merchant or shoemaker, for Barnhardt’s store and McAnulty’s shop kindled young ambitions; better to ‘keep store’ or ‘mend shoes,’ than as a preacher’s son to be moving around from place to place.

“But Pioneer Mills was ‘no place for a preacher’s son.’ Soon we moved again; this time to the brand new brick parsonage, close by the church. We used to go to church in a big closed carriage drawn by two mules; now, every Sunday, we walked to church, going down a steep hill, across a branch, and through the grove to the famous old house of worship.”

Dr. Mack’s letter also read, “Those were happy years; happy in springtime with its apple blossoms, song birds, morning-glories and Tish McKinley’s Sassafras tea; happy in the summertime, with its blackberries and plums, its bob-whites in the wheat fields, its lightning and thunder storms, its bare-footed boys and girls, and its bitter quinine to keep off third-day chills; happy in the autumn time, with its white fields of unpicked cotton and its beautiful trees with leaves of myriad hues; and happy in the wintertime, with its snows, its big hickory back-logs, its boys in boots red-topped and toes brass-tipped, its red-cheeked girls in wraps and ‘choke rags,’ and its Christmas Holidays and turkeys.”

Dr. Mack’s colorful memories paint an idyllic picture of life in Township One in Cabarrus County in the early 1870s. I hope the children growing up here in the 21st century will have equally-as-fond memories of this place.

My sources

My sources for this blog post were the following:  The Presbyterian Congregation on Rocky River, by Thomas Hugh Spence, Jr, 1954; The Concord Daily Tribune, August 16, 1912; The Concord Times, August 19, 1912; http://www.hpo.ncdcr.gov/nr/CA0498.pdf (photocopy of the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Robert Harvey Morrison Farm and Pioneer Mills Gold Mine); and Descendants of James & Jennet Morrison of Rocky River, by Alice Marie Morrison and Janet Sue Morrison.

Until my next blog post

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I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet