The 1886 Earthquake that Nearly Destroyed Charleston, South Carolina

Photo taken of Charleston, SC, following the quake of 1886
Photo taken of Charleston, SC, following the quake of 1886

From its earliest of days, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, has been well acquainted with heartache and destruction.

Coined as the “City of Disasters”, the Palmetto State’s most affluent region has endured the ravishes of war, fire, hurricane and most recently, a senseless mass shooting which claimed the lives of nine people.

Sadly, as tragic as the city’s history has been, few disasters can compare to the magnitude of a single earthquake which nearly destroyed Charleston back in the summer of 1886.

Roughly two decades following the American Civil War, the people of South Carolina and Charleston, in particular, were in the process of rebuilding their economies — desperately attempting to shake off the war terrors of the previous generation.

Sadly, this rebuilding process would take a serious setback on the evening of August 31, 1886.

Shortly after 9 p.m., telegraph wires from across the continent began roaring to life as cities throughout the hemisphere began announcing a “remarkable natural phenomenon… [as the ground] rocked to and fro”.

The following morning, the Philadelphia Inquirer posted news of the earthquake on its front page, reporting that buildings in the Pennsylvania city had “rocked back and forth” and that the clock along the wall at the Western Union office had been damaged.

The Philadelphia paper reported that the quake had been reported by numerous other cities in the country as well.

In Indianapolis, “a portion of the cornice of the Denison Hotel was displaced, falling to the pavement, and the tower of the court house rocked to such an extent that the fire watchman on duty fled down stairs.”

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “large buildings were shaken to their foundations…”

In the South, Jacksonville, Florida, reported that the previous night, buildings were shaken so severely that local residents “ran into the streets in alarm…”

In fact, just about every American city east of the Rockies had reported feeling some type of quake the previous night — every city but one.

By the morning of September 1, 1886, telegraph operators were beginning to become worried for the city of Charleston — not a single telegraph had been received from the city and telegraphs addressed to the city had not been answered.

“Since the earthquake shock there has been no telegraph communication with Charleston, S.C., from any point in the country.  The telegraph authorities have been unable to get press despatches or other communications from there.  This circumstance occasions great concern,” wrote a New York City press wire.

As the coming days would reveal, the cause for concern would prove legitimate.

Ultimately, the final count would reveal that approximately 60 individuals had lost their lives due to the historic quake which is estimated to have been 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale.

Within the city almost all of the buildings sustained damage and most had to be torn down.

The city’s infrastructure was totally disabled.  Telegraph poles had been toppled, wires were cut and railroad tracks were torn apart.

For days, the citizens of Charleston were cut off from the outside world and vice versa.

In total, the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 damaged 2,000 buildings in the city and caused $6 million worth of damage ($133 million in modern-day USD).

Ironically, it was this quake which can be largely thanked for making the city into the vibrant and modern community it is today.

Property owners immediately went to work throughout the city, rebuilding the infrastructure using the most modern methods.

Photo Courtesy RegBarc  Earthquake Bolts in Charleston
Photo Courtesy RegBarc
Earthquake Bolts in Charleston

“Earthquake bolts” were added into existing unreinforced masonry buildings to add support to the structure without having to demolish the buildings due to instability. The bolts pass through the existing masonry walls tying walls on opposite sides of the structure together for stability.

Several earthquake bolts can be spotted throughout the city today.

Few earthquakes in American history have been studied as much as the historic Charleston quake.

Today, scientists have reached the conclusion that the quake occurred on faults formed during the break-up of Pangaea. Similar faults are found all along the east coast of North America. It is thought that such ancient faults remain active from forces exerted on them by present-day motions of the North American Plate. The exact mechanisms of intraplate earthquakes are a subject of much debate.

What isn’t up for debate, however, is that on the night of August 31, 1886, the city of Charleston played host to one of the worst quakes ever to rattle the eastern United States and if what they say about history is true — the fact that it repeats itself — then the people of Charleston are overdue for another massive quake.  Good night.

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