Aug. 31, 1886, began as an ordinary hot and humid day in Charleston, South Carolina. Suddenly, at 9:50 p.m., the sultry summer night was shattered by a roaring noise, a thumping and beating of the earth, the collapse of buildings, and the screams of anguish and fear. Then, just as suddenly, quiet returned, all within a time span of about one minute. South Carolina had just experienced the largest earthquake in history in the United States east of the Appalachian Mountains.
As described in Upheaval in Charleston by Susan Millar Williams, “Nothing was as it had been five minutes before, and nothing would be quite the same again. Shattered were the walls that separated rich from poor, white from black, neighbor from neighbor … The rules that governed everyday behavior were suspended, exhilarating the powerless and terrifying the powerful. The very foundation of the earth had turned treacherous … In the words of one awed resident, the only steady objects now were the stars, ‘shining peacefully in a cloudless sky.’”
The immediate reaction by the populace was one of terror and panic. People rushed out of buildings to open spaces and away from the falling debris. The dead and wounded were moved to parks and public places, and almost everyone camped out the night of Aug. 31, during which the aftershocks added to their terror.
By morning, Charleston residents began the work of clearing the rubble, of which 10,000 cartloads were said to have been removed in one week. It was reported that not a single building in Charleston escaped some damage and that only a very few did not suffer serious damage. Every brick and stone building in Charleston was cracked.
Despite the continuing aftershocks, people sorted out bricks from the debris and began the job of rebuilding within two days. By that time, the stores and shops that had not been destroyed were reopened for business. Merchants carried out relief work, as did committees set up by the churches. Sailors from ships at anchor joined with private citizens to clear debris and to provide food, shelter, and support to those in need.
Much has been written of this tragic earthquake, and numerous scientific studies have examined its cause and effects to determine if it will happen again, as well as how injury, loss of life, and economic impact can be reduced in the event of future earthquakes.
Read more about earthquakes in South Carolina and the recent “swarm” in Elgin on page 30.