The Great Roar : The Charleston Earthquake of 1886

Category: History, Uncategorized

The Great Roar: The Charleston Earthquake of 1886

By Brandon Stone | Engagement Manager, Middleton Place Foundation

On August 31, 1886, at 9:15 pm, a Middleton descendent, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, witnessed an event that the Charleston News and Courier described as “the most disastrous event in the City’s history,” the great earthquake. [1] Alice, who was only a child illustrates a nightmare surrounding the immediate aftermath, stating that Charleston residents could see the night sky glowing with the “flare of fires” and hear the “crashing of falling walls” nearby.[2] At the time, the city was only twenty-one years removed from the end of the American Civil War and only a decade away from Union occupation; much of the city and surrounding areas were still under physical reconstruction. The Edmondston-Alston House and nearby Middleton Place suffered extensive damage from the earthquake, and for the 136th anniversary, we’ll look at how both properties survived the “great roar.”[3]

Immediately after the earthquake, many city streets were blocked by “strewn bricks, window-stills, plaster, huge brick and stone pillars, [and] heavy beams.”[4] East Battery, the street where the Alstons resided, had seen “great destruction to [the] dwellings.”[5] The Alston residence not only lost its iconic second-story iron balcony, but the family crest adorning the top of the roof fell off, crushing the remains of the fence below. Though no description of the damage to the interior exists, Motte Pringle, an Alston relative, writes that Emma was “wondering near her house on the battery with her children” and that the house was “devastated” and “not fit for habitation.”[6]

Image Courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation

Cook’s Earthquake Views of Charleston and Vicinity. Taken after the 31st of August, 1886. No.66, Alston, East Battery.

Image Courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation


For the Middletons, their damage was inflicted on the remains of the torched house as well as the landscape of Middleton Place. Though the Middletons were not at Middleton Place – Williams died three years prior, and his wife and children had moved away – significant damage was inflicted on the property. While the Foundation’s archive contains no written records from the family about the earthquake damage, other documents tell the story. Earle Sloan, part of the U.S. Geological Survey team, visited Middleton Place on September 19, 1886, and reported that “the ceilings in the remaining flanker were severely cracked, and the chimneys were badly injured. The earthquake’s power was evident…destroying what was left of the burnt-out walls of the main house.”[7] The report also described that the landscape suffered immensely, stating 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.”[8]

Rebuilt South Flanker with ruins, 1870s

Image Courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation

Butterfly Lakes overgrown following 1886 earthquake

Image Courtesy of the Middleton Place Foundation

While the earthquake of 1886 rocked the city of Charleston and devastated both the Edmondston-Alston House and Middleton Place, it is quintessential to acknowledge that this earthquake left Charleston in an economic drought for decades. The Edmondston-Alston House and the Middleton Place south flanker were slowly restored after the city recorded the damage. Today, earthquake rods are installed in most historic buildings in Charleston, including both properties under the Foundation’s stewardship. It would not be until the end of the First World War that Charleston culturally would reenter the national conversation. Amongst the leaders of the cultural renaissance was the ten-year-old girl who witnessed the earthquake, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. While Alice’s artwork never recounted the great “roar” of her youth, her work as a preservationist did. Alice is an excellent example that all of us have a shared history when a community experiences joy and beauty and manmade and natural disasters.

[1] Charleston News and Courier. September 1, 1886.

[2] Severens, Martha R. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: An Artist, a Place, and a Time. United States: Carolina Art Association, 1993. 76-77

[3] Severens, 76.

[4] Charleston News and Courier. September 3, 1886.

[5] Dutton, Clarence Edward. The Charleston Earthquake of August 31, 1886. United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1890. 234.

[6] Cote, Richard N. City of Heroes: The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886. United States: Corinthian Books, 2006. 33.

[7] Dutton, 295.

[8] Dutton, 295.

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