The Earthquake at Charleston
by Ewing Gibson
On Tuesday, the 31st of August, 1886, every one in Charleston, South
Carolina, complained of the severe heat and sultriness of the air. Not a
breath cooled the atmosphere, parched by the burning summer sun's rays.
In the afternoon the usual sea breeze failed to appear, and there was no
relief from the intense closeness and almost overpowering warmth. The
sky was clear, but with a misty, steamy appearance which reminded one
strongly of glowing, tropical countries.
As the night came on, the absence of the glare of the sun was the only
relief to the parched and panting population. Seated in the parlor of a
large three-storied brick house in the central portion of the city, I
spent the evening after tea conversing with two friends who had called
to see me. After a few hours of pleasant conversation, one of my friends
said it was time to leave. Taking out his watch, he continued, "Six
minutes of ten, and—what is that?" A low, deep rumbling noise as of
thunder, only beneath instead of above us, coming from afar and
approaching us nearer and nearer, muttering and groaning, and ever
increasing in volume,—it was upon us in an instant.
The massive brick house we were in began to sway from side to
side—gently at first with a rhythmical motion, then gradually
increasing in force, until, springing to our feet, we seized one another
by the hand and gazed with blanched and awe-struck faces at the
tottering walls around us. We felt the floor beneath our feet heaving
like the deck of a storm-tossed vessel, and heard the crashing of the
falling masonry and ruins on every side. With almost stilled hearts we
realized that we were in the power of an earthquake. The motion of the
house, never ceasing, became now vertical. Up and down it went as though
some monstrous giant had taken it in his hands as a plaything and were
tossing it like a ball for his amusement. Recalling our dazed senses,
and staggering to our feet as best we could, with one accord we rushed
down the steps leading to the front door, and, grasping the handle,
turned it. In vain—the door was jammed, and we were compelled to wait
like rats in a trap until the shock had passed!
Concentrating its energies into one final, convulsive effort, the huge
earth-wave passed and left the earth palpitating and heaving like a
tired animal. There came crashing down into our garden-plot the chimneys
from the house in front of ours. Fortunately the falling bricks injured
none of us. Making another trial, we succeeded in opening the door and
rushed into the street.
Now there came upon us an overpowering, suffocating odor of sulphur and
brimstone, which filled the whole atmosphere. We were surrounded by a
crowd of neighbors—men, women, and children—who had rushed out of
their houses, as we had done, and who stood with us in the middle of the
street, awaiting they knew not what.
Suddenly there came again to our ears the now dreaded rumbling sound.
Like some fierce animal, growling and seeking its victim, it approached,
and we all prepared ourselves for the worst. The shock came, and for a
moment the crowd was awed into silence. Fortunately this shock was not
nearly so severe as the first. The earth became still once more, and the
roaring died away in the distance.
STREET SCENE DURING THE CHARLESTON EARTHQUAKE.
How the people shunned their houses and spent that and succeeding nights
in the streets, private gardens, and on public squares, is well known
from the many accounts given in the daily and illustrated papers at the
So perfectly still and calm was the air during the night, that a lamp,
which was taken out in the open air burnt as steadily as though
protected in a room, and no flickering revealed the presence of a breath
Again, some strong and powerful buildings in certain portions of the
city were wrecked completely, while others older and undoubtedly weaker
passed through the shock unharmed. A house on one corner was perfectly
shattered, while, just a few hundred feet away, the house on the
opposite corner was not damaged in the slightest except that a little
plastering was shaken down.
Knowing that a city with a population of sixty thousand had been wrecked
in every direction by an earthquake, one would expect the death-list to
be enormous; but not more than about forty were killed outright, and but
a few more were wounded. Had the shock occurred in the daytime, when the
streets were thronged, the loss of life must have been terrible.