Saturday, August 31, 2013


August 31, 2013


Charleston, South Carolina (JFK+50) First came devastation wrought by the Civil War, but 31 years after the conflict ended and 127 years ago this evening, August 31, 1886, Charleston was hit by an earthquake which virtually destroyed the city.

                  Earthquake Damage 
                      Charleston, S.C. 
                   NOAA* Photo (1886)

*National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It had been a typically hot late August day in the Holy City and the evening was described by Paul Pinckney of the San Francisco Chronicle  as "unusually sultry."

The quake began about ten minutes before 9 o'lock and lasted just less than one minute.

"Buildings were shaken as toys...people rushed from the houses" and many were killed from being hit by falling chimneys or walls.

Brick and stone buildings suffered most with 2000 being severely damaged or destroyed. 

"Hardly a structure...was undamaged."

St. Michael's Church was severely damaged, described as "a wreck" with "its tall steeple lying in the street."

                  St. Michael's Church
                        Charleston, S. C.
           Photo by John White (2012)

14,000 chimneys fell and the quake was followed by multiple fires and ruptured water lines.

"Many acres of ground were overflowed with sand.  Fissures a meter wide extended parallel to the Ashley River and several large trees were uprooted."

Earthquake damage extended to nearby Summerville.

In downtown Charleston, "people gathered in public parks and squares," which were illuminated by gas lights, to assist the injured and care for the dying.

Estimates were that at least 60 and possibly more than 100 people died as a result of the quake and total estimates of damage range from $5 to $6 million.

Charleston, a city of 49,000 persons in 1886, had to be totally rebuilt.  Yet, according to Paul Pinckney, by 1890 "the only visible evidence of this great destruction was seen in the cracks which remained in the buildings that were not destroyed."

It is said that some of those cracks remain to this day.

                  Charleston Home with
                     Earthquake Bolts**
               Photo by RegBarc (2007)

**Bolts, which were installed after the earthquake of 1886, added to the stability of Charleston homes and buildings. 

The Charleston earthquake of 1886, rated from 6.6 to 7.3 on the Richter Scale, remains the most powerful earthquake to occur in the southeastern United States.

There were more than 300 aftershocks associated with the Charleston quake.

Apparently there is no record of earthquake activity in the vicinity of Charleston prior to August 31, 1886.

Nearly 20 years after the Charleston earthquake, Paul Pinckney summed it up this way...

"Thrice in a generation Charleston was nearly obliterated.  The civil war left it in ashes, the earthquake left it in ruins, a few years subsequent it was visited by a cyclone which damaged it over $5,000,000.  

Yet despite all these disasters her brave people have risen superior to every reverse and are daily growing in wealth and power."


"Historic Earthquake, Charleston, SC, 1886, Mag 7.3," USGS,

"Lessons Learned from the Charleston Quake, How the Southern city was rebuilt finer than ever within 4 years," by Paul Pinckney, San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 1906,