Charleston rose from the ruin of the Earthquake of 1886

  • Thursday, September 13, 2012

I once lived in a lovely single house downtown, complete with requisite piazzas, walled garden and a chandelier hanging in the formal dining room. The house had been erected in the 1840s, and a friend of mine, an inveterate bottle collector, suggested we dig the privy and see what we could find.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of antique collecting in this unique fashion, a word about old privies. Prior to organized garbage collection, the deep hole of the outhouse privy was also the place to discard such things as used-up ink, wine and medicine bottles.
By the way, after a century or so, the organic matter left in a privy is only dirt. Digging one is not as disgusting as it sounds, unless you’re digging one like mine, which was under a later addition built onto the rear of the house. Digging this privy was no easy task. We only had about a three-foot crawl space in which to work.
Before it was over I felt like a tunnel digger in the movie, "The Great Escape."
About three feet into the hole, we hit a solid layer of broken plaster pieces. Under this, we found about a dozen broken glasses, stacked just as they would have been in the cabinet, one atop the other. Next we uncovered about two dozen broken dinner plates. Then came broken crockery, fine porcelain and heavy clay cookware.
What was this?
It looked as if they’d thrown the entire kitchen away, all at one time, walls and ceiling included.
My friend was disappointed. So many broken treasures and not one worth keeping. But I was elated.
I suddenly realized that I was seeing, up close and personal and for the first time in over a hundred years, physical evidence of the destruction wreaked by the Great Earthquake of 1886.
Yes, they’d thrown the entire kitchen away - and probably a good portion of the house, as well.
At approximately 9:50 p.m. on the evening of August 31, 1886, residents of Charleston and the surrounding area were literally jolted into a sudden new reality when the earth moved, violently - not once, but five times.
It began with a low rumble and increased until it hit the crescendo of a thundering roar. Walls caved in; ceilings fell.
Buildings collapsed. In some areas, the sandy soil liquefied into a quivering mass of quicksand-like fluid. Open fissures gaped, emitting the strong, steaming odor of sulfur. Fires erupted throughout the city. In almost an instant, virtually every house and building in Charleston suffered some sort of damage.
"The city is wrecked," reported the News & Courier, which somehow managed to get out a paper the following morning. "Streets are encumbered with masses of fallen bricks and tangled telegraph and telephone wires, and up to an early hour it was almost impossible to pass from one part of the city to another. The first shock was followed by a second and third, less severe than the first.
The city suffered a total of five shocks that night, and although they diminished in violence, each wreaked powerful damage.
City Hall and the courthouse were so badly demolished the mayor and council had to meet elsewhere.
The old stationhouse, located at the corner of Broad and Meeting (where the Post Office is now), was in an irreparable state of wreckage. The Corinthian columns of the portico at Hibernian Hall lay in a pile of rubble.
What the earthquake had not damaged, the fires had. That summer had been abnormally hot and dry, causing drought conditions.
When the fires erupted, almost simultaneously, despite truly heroic efforts there were not enough engines nor enough water to put them out.
From Bull’s Bay on the pilot boat "Wild Cat," Captain James M. Lee later reported that the shock broke the bulkhead and the cattle on the island "bellowed out at a fearful rate," and they could see the fires in the Charleston vicinity and it appeared the whole city was in flames.
Understandably, the quake caused a chaos of pandemonium. People fled the falling bricks and unstable buildings and took to the streets.
"The world seemed to come to an end," remembered Miss Sue Miles of Summerville, also hard hit by the quake. "Terrifying noise, darkness, all lamps blew out, fell on the floor. A fearful noise, the house in motion, crashing destruction… the most hopeless feeling of terror seized us."
In the ensuing days, Charleston’s beautiful parks became tent cities, filled with people from all social and economic backgrounds, either homeless, unable or afraid to re-enter their damaged homes. They had good reason, for a string of aftershocks of varying strength followed, the last one occurring as late as Sept. 30, 1886.
"Half of the people in the town are out in the streets or squares with sheets or table clothes for tent coverings," wrote Augustus T. Smythe in a letter a week after the earthquake, adding, " Mrs. Elliott Welch had twins in a tent out on the Battery two nights ago. There have been several births in tents."
Once again, Charleston faced the disaster head-on. It had only been a year, almost to the day, since the city had suffered the devastating effects of a killer hurricane. Known in history as the "August Cyclone of 1885," this had been a Hugo-sized storm with extreme winds and major flooding.
Also, Charleston had yet to recover from the economic depression caused by the war.
Augustus Smythe wrote, "I got $250 today for the Misses Gibbes, from a private source so their names will not go before a public Committee... Poor old Mrs. Dawson who lived near Friend Street in Tradd, and her daughter had to leave their house, which is unsafe… they had nothing to eat, and all their little belongings are up in their house, and it is considered risky to go into it. I am carrying them some money today to relieve their immediate wants…"
Within the month, financial aid came pouring into Charleston from across the United States and the world. Charleston, the perpetual Phoenix, began slowly to rise from the ashes.
(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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