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Charleston Earthquake
of 1886

Chapter 5

Images of Destruction

1- Newspaper illustration of Charleston 
2- Derailed train caused by twisted track
3- East Bay corner of Cumberland Street
4- East Bay Street
4-Hayne Street
5-Intersection of Broad and King
6-Market Street collapse looking East
7-Saint Philips Church, Meeting and Calhoun
8-The Colored Schoolhouse
9-Local residents living in tents in Marion Square
10-African Americans Gather in Park
11-The collapse of the Gas Works
12- Damage to the Engine House (Fire station)


The Great Earthquake of 1886 is still the largest earthquake to occur on the Southeastern coast of the United States. With a magnitude of 7.6, the quake struck the old city of Charleston at about 9:51 pm on August 31. Shock waves were felt in Florida and Maine. More than 100 people died. It is estimated that 14,000 chimneys fell, causing multiple fires that burned out of control due to ruptured waterlines, gas lines, and wells, not to mention the damage done to the fire stations!   Shock waves were felt as far as Florida and Maine. Railroad tracks were mangled and twisted. Because the city of Charleston was built on sandy soil, the shaking waves produced by the earthquake liquefied the ground surface, forcing sand craterlets to spout as high as 6 feet, ejecting the sand over many acres of land. Within days everyone in Charleston abandoned his/her damaged home to sleep outside, in parks, cemeteries, backyards, on buses, ships, ice wagons, and railroad cars. Even ships in the harbor became refugees for the homeless. Over the next three years, the traumatized people of Charleston suffered through 300 additional aftershocks.

Laura Witte recalls the night of the Great Earthquake. 

August 31, 1886, the Charleston earthquake occurred. We were on Sullivan's island and could see the fires in the city but could get no news until the following day. The shocks came a little before ten o"clock at night, and the damage to the buildings was done then. For months afterward, at intervals, shocks could be felt and people were on the alert for them.

To feel suddenly a solid house heave side to side and hear a loud roar at the same time is a terrifying experience and unforgettable. It was unusual for us to up at such a late hour, the reason was that the house was full of guests-the elders were playing whist and talking and six or more children where having theatricals with themselves as actors and audience down in the basement where the stage was. Running up the stairs we saw the chandeliers were still swinging, and the house was rocking, although we had felt the first shock while. on stage.

My father, accustomed to our noise, had said when the earthquake started, "Those children are making too much noise."

We slept for many nights afterward in the downstairs rooms. The chimneys were damaged, but it was some time after we left the Island, as the townhouse had to be repaired.

Great holes were left in spots on the Island, and earthquake sand in many colors was found and salvaged and sold as souveniers later in various shops.

Later people recalled that the day of the earthquake had been very sultry, that the sunset in the evening looked peculiar, and a strong odor of sulfur was noticeable. The coachmen reported the horses had been restless and kicked early in the evening , in their stalls, and. one horse who always had kicked at night, never did again. 

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