The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886

The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886

Image to the left depicts the damage of the earthquake of 1886 on Charleston – image taken from 

As a large east coast city located on the water, Charleston is quite vulnerable to yearly hurricanes, as most of us know. But did you know that Charleston sits on one of the most active earthquake producing areas in North America? About 22 miles northwest of Charleston lies a 25 by 15 mile oval, which is known as the Middleton Place-Summerville Seismic Zone. Although not strong enough to be felt, about 10-30 earthquakes are recorded in this specific seismic zone each year.

One of the largest and most lethal earthquakes to strike the United States, east of the Mississippi, is known as the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886. It struck without warning and some of the damage can still be seen today. (Incidentally, it was larger and more destructive than the earthquake that struck California’s San Francisco area during the World Series telecast in 1989.)

For example, if you look closely at some of the buildings in historic downtown Charleston, you can see earthquake bolt plates that were placed at the top of specific buildings, appearing as round metal disks. As you pass down King Street these bolts are quite evident in several structures. One example would be the building on the southeast corner of the intersection of King Street and George Street. Installed after the 1886 earthquake, they were used to hold damaged buildings together. The bolts were actually screwed in bit by bit to bring walls together and back into alignment. Covering some of the bolts are decorative heads, such as the one that can be seen on the building of 327 King Street.

Other signs to look for are: cracks cross-cutting through buildings that have been mortared over. For example, lots of cracks are plainly visible on the Wagener Building located on the corner of Queen Street and East Bay Street; a difference in the thickness of the mortar that was used to repair bricks; wooden framed buildings that are tilting to the left or the right; window sills that are no longer even or in line with one another; cracked or tilted headstones and mausoleums in the small graveyards throughout downtown. Specifically, in the St. Philips Church Graveyard many of the older tombstones can be seen leaning.

Of note, Marion Square (located across from the Francis Marion Hotel) was used as one of the open areas in Charleston to house displaced earthquake victims in makeshift tents and shanties.  Randolph Hall, the main administration building of the College of Charleston, was completed in 1829.  It was severely damaged in the 1886 quake and that damage is still visible in the large vertical cracks between windows and the change in color of the roofline. Misalignment of the windows is due to settling after the quake. Another building severely damaged by the great quake, was the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon at the end of Broad Street. Constructed from 1767-1771 this building was also severely damaged and has since undergone extensive repairs. Another building badly affected was The Old City Jail at 21 Magazine Street, which was constructed in 1802.  Much of the cracking and damage is still visible on the walls of the jail.

Of course, sometimes it is difficult to spot some of these changes, but they do become quite obvious when someone acquainted with the history of Charleston points them out. It can be quite advantageous to take a Palmetto Carriage Works tour around downtown Charleston. These guides are all well versed in the history of Charleston and are able to answer any questions you may have regarding historic downtown (including pointing out specific structures and how they were affected by the earthquake).

One last note:

What to do in the event of an earthquake:

1)   Stay calm.

2)   Stay put: If you are inside, stay inside.  If you are outside, stay outside. Most injuries occur when entering and leaving a building.

3)   Take cover and stay away from glass.

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