“A Rumbling Fearful Noise”: Charleston Earthquake of 1886

Today’s guest blogger is Nick Baric, an archivist in the Archives I Processing Section.

On August 23, 2011, the Washington, DC, area was rocked by the one of the largest east coast earthquakes in recorded U.S. history. Few of us who were around on that day will ever forget where they were when it struck, and many may ponder, “Has it really been two years?” While few visible signs are left of the disaster, the Washington Monument remains closed to this day. Still undergoing repairs, it will be wrapped in scaffolding until 2014.

Almost 125 years prior to that memorable day, another American city not often associated with the phenomenon experienced an earthquake. At 9:50 p.m. on August 31, 1886, residents of the port city of Charleston, South Carolina were startled by an earthquake. Although there was no Richter scale at the time (it would not be created until 1935), experts today believe that the earthquake in Charleston would fall between 6.6 and 7.3. On the other hand, the DC quake – centered in Louisa County, Virginia – “only” registered a 5.8. The impact of Charleston’s earthquake was felt as far away as Boston to the north, Chicago and Milwaukee to the northwest, as far west as New Orleans, as far south as Cuba, and as far east as Bermuda. It caused major damage as far away at Tybee Island, Georgia – which was more than 60 miles from the epicenter. While the 2011 quake caused no fatalities, Charleston’s death toll was disputed but ranged between 60 and 110, damaging 2,000 buildings. It caused an estimated $6 million in damages, (about $150 million in 2013 dollars).

Federal agencies were not spared the quake’s impact. Charleston served as the headquarters for the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s Sixth District (in 1939 the Light House Service became a component of the U.S. Coast Guard). The Light House Tender “Wistaria” soon rendered assistance to the inhabitants of the city by providing food and shelter. Months later, the U.S. Geological Survey inquired in a letter of February 18, 1887, to the Chairman of the Light-House Board as to the time observations of the earthquake at two lighthouses down to the nearest second since these were deemed to be of “especial value in the study of the Earthquake of Aug. 31st”. In the immediate aftermath, Colonel B.B. Smith, Assistant Light House Engineer of the district, inquired in a circular about any damages to lighthouses under his jurisdiction.

Although some of the responses were clinical in their description of the quake and its aftermath, others took on a much more personal tone. In the same way that I recall returning from lunch to my desk on August 23, 2011, and then suddenly feeling the building tremble, the September 12, 1886, letter (see images below) from Patrick Comer, keeper of the Daufuskie Island Light House, depicts a typical evening turning unforgettable. He wrote, “I was on the verandah smoking my pipe … all of a sudden came a slight breeze from the S.E. followed up by a rumbling fearful noise, like the noise of a prairie on fire”.

Record Group 26 (Records of the U.S. Coast Guard); Press Copies of Letters Sent and Received from Headquarters in Charleston, 1866-1928 (NARA Online Identifier 6706482); Folder: “Reports re. the earthquake of Aug. 31, 1886”

In another letter dated September 2, 1886 (see images below), John M. Doyle, keeper of the Bloody Point Light Station, illustrates the quake’s effect on his children (and four legged companion), noting that “my children who had gone to bed screamed in terror & the noise was so deafening we could scarcely hear their voices”.

Record Group 26 (Records of the U.S. Coast Guard); Press Copies of Letters Sent and Received from Headquarters in Charleston, 1866-1928 (NARA Online Identifier 6706482); Folder: “Reports re. the earthquake of Aug. 31, 1886”

Reactions to natural disasters can run the gamut of human emotions. Just as we will not soon forget where we were on August 23, 2011, the civil servants stationed on the coast of South Carolina in August 1886 probably felt the same way.

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