“For a few moments all the inhabitants of the city stood together in the presence of death, in its most terrible form, and perhaps scarcely one doubted that all would be swallowed together and at once, in one yawning grave.... From every quarter arose the shrieks, the cries of pain and fear, the prayers and wailings ...the air was everywhere filled, to the height of houses, with a whitish cloud of dry, stifling dust arising from the lime and mortar of the shattered masonry... ” Carl McKinley recorded in the 1886 City of Charleston Yearbook. In a letter to a friend Harriott Kinloch Smith recalled; “You cannot imagine the horrors of that night, the crowds of half-dressed people, the sky lurid from the glare of immense fires, the noise of falling bricks, the frequent shocks...”
Both McKinley and Smith wrote of the same night, August 31st, 1886. At 9:51 P.M. the first of five destructive shocks struck Charleston and the surrounding area. For almost eight minutes the Low Country experienced a massive earthquake, whose tremors were felt in cities as far away as Boston and Chicago. Modern authorities have placed this 1886 quake between 6 and the upper 7's on the Richter scale.
Its’ results were catastrophic. Thousands of homes throughout the Low Country were destroyed, thousands more injured, and over ninety people lost their lives. In total the quake caused damages of around six million dollars, a sizable fortune by 1886 standards. In the city yearbook McKinley recounted the suddenness of the devastation. “Millions of dollars worth of property, the accumulation of nearly two centuries, had been destroyed in the time a child would take to crush a frail toy.”
“The slow-dawning day broke over a scene of desolation, -the great substantial brick houses broken as you or I would break a small nut in our hands; our house north and south, completely gone...those small houses opposite us cracked and broken from foundation to roof.” Harriott Smith recalled in her letter. “I don’t know what at all what we will do” she worried, but even as the city was in ruins around her she expressed her wish not to leave. “ I only hope we don’t leave Charleston, which at times seems not unlikely.”
The loss of home was so widespread that many families would be forced into the streets or parks, living out of tents or makeshift structures. Even homes that survived relatively undamaged were suspect. Many were afraid to spend the night in any dwelling for fear that another quake might topple it. “Half the people in the town are out in the streets or squares with sheets or table clothes for tent coverings...” Augustine Smythe wrote in September of that year. According to Smythe, the survivors continued to cope as best as they were able. “Mrs. Elliot Welch had twins out on the Battery two nights ago. There have been several births in tents.”
The nation was quick to react to this tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in along with food, water, and medicine. “The Earthquake has opened the hearts of the whole country to us,” Daniel Huger Bacot wrote of the relief efforts. Aid would also come from several countries overseas. Despite this overwhelming support, the scope of the damage was so severe that it would take many years to completely recover. The Low Country would draw upon the same resilience that had carried it through two wars, hurricanes, tornadoes, epidemics, and fire to rebuild. With this determination and support worldwide, Charleston and the Low Country would recover and prosper.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.