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Great Charleston Earthquake – August 31, 1886

Category: Gardens, History

August 31st is the 133rd anniversary of the Great Charleston Earthquake. Though not many people nationally think of Charleston as an earthquake zone, the most active fault line in the southeast runs along the Ashley River.  While small seismic events are common in the area and have been reported since February 1698, only one major quake has occurred in this region.

With its epicenter near Middleton Place, the quake struck at 9:51 p.m. on August 31st and shook for between 35 to 70 seconds.  With an intensity estimated at 7.3 on today’s Richter scale, it was the strongest quake to ever hit the southeastern region of the United States and was felt as far away as Canada.  The quake was followed by aftershocks on an almost daily basis for weeks afterward.  The death toll in Charleston alone was 83 and the damage to the fabric of the city was extensive.  The Great Earthquake of 1886 was considered the greatest natural disaster to ever hit South Carolina until it was superseded by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.[i]

According to one report, when the earthquake hit Middleton Place, large fissures appeared in the earth, ripping open the garden’s terraces.  The landscape rolled like a flag waving horizontally, and the Butterfly Lakes at the bottom of the terraces were sucked dry.  When geologist Earle Sloan visited Middleton Place on September 19, 1886, he found that the ceilings in the remaining south flanker were severely cracked, and the chimneys were badly injured.  The power of the earthquake was evident, and the shock damage had come vertically from below, destroying what little was left of the burnt-out walls of the main house and the northern flanker.  Sloan found further indication of “increased violence” on the grounds.  The earth was severely disturbed, and innumerable craterlets had appeared.  Some were eight feet across, and several were still actively spewing water on the day of Sloan’s visit.[ii]

Another account of the earthquake was relayed years later by a Middleton descent, the famed watercolorist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.  At the time, Alice was 10 years old and living with her family at 69 Church Street in downtown Charleston.  Years later, she wrote her recollections of that fateful night:

“When the roar of the earthquake, and the menacing movement of our friend, the solid earth, began – when the big, square brick house which had always seemed to us akin to the Rock of Gibraltar began that disconcerting tremor and thud, there was instant reaction, a recognition of a hitherto totally unexpected and unknown force. . . . I do remember the rolling out of bed in the dark and joining the group on the stair landing – seeing my aunt, my sister Lilli, and my brother Mason successfully putting out the blaze in the drawing room where the overturned kerosene lamp had started a fire, and hearing my Uncle Bob’s cheerful voice shouting to us . . . “Steady now, steady!” as after shocks set the house trembling.

The next move was out into the dark garden – then I really was disturbed. It had been planted with pea-vines to improve the soil, and I knew absolutely that there were lots of caterpillars. However, we survived the earthquake, and the dangers of the pea-vines, the long night with the flare of fires throughout the city, and the clamor of the city as it fought against the flames, amid the crashing of falling walls. 

The Negroes added to the noise as they gave voice to their fears, for they thought it was the Day of Judgment – literally, they thought so.

Father and Bob brought out mattresses and cushions, and I finally fell asleep.  My next picture is of the look of the house the next morning with the southern piazzas wrecked where the heavy chimney had crashed through it, and of the rooms filled with dust and fallen plaster. . . A four-poster bed was brought down into the garden and made into a curtained cubicle for Grandmother and Aunt Belle. . . Bob and Father built a sort of shed, a long affair of posts dragged from somewhere and roofed with a piece of old tin and nursery carpet. . . A row of mattresses was put under this open shed, mosquitoes being ignored, and at one end my Father and Mother slept, and at the other end old Dah, or negro nurse, with all five of us young ones in between.

We lived out in the yard for several weeks.  A good sized white canvas tent was put up, and regular beds therein, with some tables and chairs. Fortunately the kitchen still functioned.  When we came back into the house the third story was uninhabitable, but the row of beds in the drawing room on the second floor took my father’s family, making a dormitory for all of us.”[iii]


[i] Jane Aldrich, “Charleston’s Natural Disasters,” in The City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual, compiled and edited by Historic Charleston Foundation for the City of Charleston Office of Tourism Management, 2011: p. 100.  See also Robert P. Stockton, The Great Shock: The Effects of the 1886 Earthquake on the Built Environment of Charleston, South Carolina. (Southern Historical Press, 1986). 

[ii] Richard N. Côté, City of Heroes: The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886 (Mt. Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2007): 71-72.  See also, Kenneth E. Peters and Robert B. Hermann, eds. First-Hand Observations of the Charleston Earthquake of August 31, 1886, and Other Earthquake Materials, Reports of W.J. McGee, Earle Sloan, Gabriel E. Manigault, Simon Newcomb, and Others (Columbia, SC: Bulletin 41, South Carolina Geological Survery, 1986), 1986.

[iii] Martha R. Severens, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: An Artist, a Place, and a Time, (Charleston, Carolina Art Association / Gibbes Museum of Art, 1993): 76-79. 

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