On the west coast, minor earthquakes are frequent enough that they’ve become a regular concern for emergency personnel and average Americans alike. But in 1886, an unusual seismic event—one of the most powerful ever to hit the east coast of the U.S.—set its sights on Charleston, South Carolina. The Charleston Earthquake of 1886 was such a remarkable event that the shocks were felt as far away as Boston in the northeast and Milwaukee in the Midwest—even the island of Bermuda noticed. According to Paul Pinckney, the earthquake felt so severe that some people even worried that Florida had broken away from the continent.
In all, the 1886 earthquake is proof that Charleston’s history is not limited to the social, military, and cultural events that happened here. Charleston’s recent history is even rife with remarkable seismological events which have shaped the history of the east coast.
The Earthquake Struck with No Warning
One of the most fearsome aspects of the Charleston earthquake was how little warning there was. The east coast of the United States was, and is to this day, a relatively low activity area for seismological events. At Geo Science World, a paper even remarked on how low the seismological activity had been for the 200 years preceding this earthquake.
In the late evening of August 31st, 1886, an extreme earthquake struck an epicenter of 32.9 degrees north, 80 degrees west—not far from downtown Charleston. Scientists now believe that the earthquake took place on subterranean faults so old they date to the break-up of Pangaea.
Charleston Earthquake of 1886 Intensity
An earthquake’s intensity can be measured in a number of ways. By any measure, the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 was severe. A magnitude of around 7 is estimated, which is a remarkable intensity anywhere, especially for the east coast. Some 60 deaths were caused, partially due to the earthquake’s proximity to a population center, and several millions of dollars of damage was assessed across thousands of buildings along the southeastern coast.
Seismological activity was so strong in the following weeks that there were reports of sand boils—areas of sand in which hot water from within the earth had run up. Aftershocks then continued for a period of a few weeks, creating a continuing impact to daily life.
The Fallout from the Charleston Earthquake
To this day, the effects of the Charleston earthquake of 1886 are still felt. Builders and engineers in Charleston are aware that the area is not without threat from earthquake, and have made reinforcing modern structures a priority. Although there is a weak likelihood of such a strong earthquake repeating any time soon, the 1886 earthquake is direct seismological evidence that the east coast is not immune from powerful and deadly earthquakes.
This destructive event in Charleston’s history was short-lived but made an immeasurable impact on the city. It’s just one of the many stories you’ll hear about Charleston’s past when you book a tour with Charleston Carriage Works. This is a classic way to explore the rich—and rocky—history of a true southeastern jewel. We look forward to showing and telling you more about this amazing city.