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.


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 time.

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 of wind.

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.