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Today In Charleston History: August 31

1706 – Queen Anne’s War

Colonel William Rhett and a fleet of six small vessels drove the French / Spanish invaders from the harbor. The English fleet was:

  • Flagship: Crown Galley
  • Galleys: Mermaid -12 guns; Richard -16 guns; William
  • Sloop: Flying Horse – 8 guns; Seaflower
1886 – Earthquake

The most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States occurred near Charleston at 9:51 P.M. on August 31st, 1886. It was one of the largest shocks in Eastern North America and was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and Cuba. At least half of the buildings in Charleston were seriously damaged, with more than 14,000 chimneys destroyed.  Property damage was estimated at $5-$6 million (about $150-200 million in present-day). Structural damage was reported in central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia and was felt by two out of every three people living in the United States. The quake has been estimated at a 7.3 magnitude.

earthquekIn 1886 Charleston had a population of 60,145 – 27,605 whites and 32,540 blacks. After twenty years of economic depression after the Civil War, Charleston was becoming a modern city – streetcars, a paid fire department, gas works, running water in several households. There was no sewage system and most people still got their water from wells and public cisterns.

It is a heavily studied example of an intraplate earthquake. It is believed to have 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 ongoing research.

The quake occurred 21 years after the Civil War – the War that Charleston started … and lost. There were some people that thought the quake was divine retribution against Charleston’s role in starting a conflict which devastated America  – more than 600,000 dead. 

The city was cut off from the outside world, all telegraph wires were destroyed. The next day, a courier rode to Summerville (thirty miles away) and reported the news of the disaster to the outside world. Rumors outside of Charleston were than the city had been swept away by a mighty tidal wave and that the Florida peninsual had snapped off from the continent and fallen into the Atlantic Ocean. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo repair the damaged buildings, earthquake bolts were added to existing unreinforced masonry buildings to add support to the structure without having to demolish the structure due to instability. The bolts pass through the existing masonry walls tying walls on opposite sides of the structure together for stability. One hundred and thirty years later, the building still stand. 

The News and Courier wrote on September 3, 1886:

“The City Hospital was badly wrecked and it is stated that several of the inmates were killed. A number of the patients were injured. These were taken out of the building and passed the night in the open air.”

Some facts of the quake included:

  • More than 100 people were killed and almost every building in Charleston was damaged.
  • There were more than 300 aftershocks taking place over the next 3 years.
  • According to the Savannah Morning News, at least a dozen people went insane and had to be sent to lunatic asylums, including “the wives and daughters of prominent citizens.”
  • “A drugstore clerk started walking on Tuesday night and didn’t stop until he reached a town fifty miles away, where he sent a postcard to his parents saying he could not return.”
  • According to the Charleston News and Courier, three women were “frightened to death.”
  • Maine: The captain of a schooner off the coast saw “black wall” rising on the water, a mighty wave that lifted the ship to a fantastic height. The schooner was buried in a mountain of foam, its sails torn off and its mast snapped.
  • North Carolina Mountains: Flames shot from caverns, leaving behind a cloud of smoke that smelled like burning coal. Massive rocks crashed down into the valley.
  • Brooklyn, New York: A telephone operator thought he was having a heart attack when all the plugs on his switchboard popped out of their sockets.
  • Terre Haute, Indiana: At a minstrel show the galleries swayed, and one man was thrown out of the balcony; he saved himself by clinging to a railing.
  • Dubuque Iowa: The audience in the opera house stampeded, thinking the building was about to fall.

To learn the entire story of the Charleston quake and it’s aftermath, read City of Heroes by Richard Cote.city of heroes

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