Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Night the City Collapsed

Did you know that Charleston, SC, was nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake in the late 19th century? No, neither did I until recently. I was looking through old headlines, trying to find a reason to move the Grenville family out of Charleston permanently. But I didn't expect to find a report of complete devastation.

It was a Tuesday night, August 31, 1886. The air was still, muggy, swelteringly hot -- a typical August night in coastal South Carolina. High tide had just turned, with the sea beginning its twice-a-day retreat from the shore. The sun had set behind a bank of low dark clouds, trailing a blood-red sky as, perhaps, an omen of what was about to happen. Darkness fell quickly, with almost no light from a new moon. At 9:51 PM, people noticed a tremor and heard a low rumble, which quickly turned into an overpowering cacophony of sounds -- a roar that seemed to go on and on. The ground pitched and rocked, and objects began to fall. First it was only small things, a vase sliding off a table, dishes tumbling from a shelf. Then it was whole buildings that tipped, swayed, and seemed to come apart where they stood.

The Remains of the House at 157 Tradd Street.
Estimates of what happened vary widely. Most reports put the magnitude of the quake at somewhere between 7.0 and 7.8.  At least sixty people were killed -- perhaps as many as 100 -- a few swallowed up by cracks in the earth, but more crushed by collapsing buildings and falling chunks of masonry. Nearly every building in the city suffered major damage, many so serious that the structure would have to be demolished. Again, estimates run from $5 million to 23 million dollars in damage (in the currency of the time.)
Damage on a Side Street

When the rocking and roaring stopped, people stood paralyzed by the enormity of what had just happened. And eight minutes later came another strong aftershock, bringing down teetering survivors. Six more aftershocks  came in the next 24 hours, and over the next three years, some three hundred more continued to shake the beleagered city.

Damage at a Black-Owned Builder's Supply Company
14,000 chimneys fell, many of them pulverized at their base, so that the whole column simply sank into the ground, dragging fireplaces with them and leaving gaping holes in houses that stretched from cellar to roof. Water lines and gas lines broke.  Rail lines were twisted and displaced, some of them tossing locamotives into the air as they moved. Others had their rails twisted into s-shapes. Huge cracks in the earth opened up running parallel to the Ashley River.

And most bizarre, the entire city was pockmarked with "sandblows. " These were miniature volcanoes, spewing a mixture of sand and water is geysers that sometimes reached twenty feet in the air. The sand from one of these "blows"  might leave just a small pile or it could cover an area 300 feet in diameter (the length of a modern football field.) The picture below is from New Zealand, but it gives a clear picture of what these small sandblows left behind.
By Cataclasite (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or

This was the largest earthquake ever recorded on the eastern coast of North America. Related damage was reported in central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia. People felt some of the shaking in Chicago, Boston, Bermuda, and New Orleans.

Within days the local paper reported some 40,000 people living in tent cities, struggling just to survive. And that struggle would permanently change the face of Charleston.  The whole story is told in a wonderful book:

Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow, written by Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius. (University of Georgia Press, 2011).

And here's another link that provides interesting sidelights -- suggested to me by fellow Lion Ken Moffatt:

Ken Moffett This was indeed a catastrophe. Many years ago while in Charleston, Judy and I took a carriage tour and learned about the earthquake bolts that were installed on many of the buildings following the 'quake to straighten and strengthen walls. Here's a link to an article about them, but I also recently read that scientists have no idea whether they will help in a future event.

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