The Day the Earth Shook

One-hundred-thirty years ago on August 31, 1886, Charleston, South Carolina, suffered a natural disaster that altered its cityscape once again. In its recent past, the city had endured considerable damage, first from the Union bombardment and capture in the Civil War and then from extensive flooding in the 1885 hurricane, or cyclone as it was then known. A new, surprising threat loomed on this day. Tremors had been felt for days before, but nothing prepared residents for the shock that occurred just before 10 p.m. that night—the largest-recorded earthquake in the southeastern United States with an estimated magnitude of 7 or higher.

Not wanting to be trapped indoors, residents dashed into the streets only to be crushed by falling debris from collapsing walls and chimneys. Survivors congregated in public squares and parks to escape ruined buildings and tend to the injured and they nervously waited for daybreak as tremors continued through the night. With downed wires preventing communication outside the city, they could only wonder if the world had ended.

Residents living in tents in City Hall Park, Charleston, S.C. Col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Residents living in tents in City Hall Park, Charleston, S.C. Col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Hope arrived the next day in the shape of a messenger from Summerville, nearly 30 miles away, with news of the earthquake’s reach there. He witnessed more signs of the quake’s devastation, having passed broken railroad ties and huge craters in roads where the earth buckled inward. As days and weeks passed, Charlestonians learned such faraway places as Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, even Bermuda and Cuba, felt tremors, with damage surprisingly occurring in Ohio and Alabama. However, Charleston experienced the most destruction with casualties totaling around 60 to over 100, depending on the source (reliable statistics were not kept at this time), and property damage assessed at $5–6 million. The only course of action was to rebuild the city yet again.

One building that couldn’t be restored was the Guard House at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets. Designed by Prussian-born architect Charles F. Reichardt, who was also responsible for the Charleston Hotel and the Meeting Street Theater, the Guard House, built in 1838, was a symbol of order and stability for decades. Serving as the city’s police station, it was also used for quarters for the guards, a detention area, a court room, and a prisoner of war camp in 1861. The building, considered unsalvageable with damage estimated at $2,500, was razed. A decade later, the United States Post Office and Courthouse rose on the same site while the police station moved several times until settling into a new building in 1888 at King and Hutson streets. One of its temporary homes for several weeks in 1887 was nearby Hibernian Hall.

Guard House, Charleston, S.C. Col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Guard House, Charleston, S.C. Col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Despite damage estimated at $13,000, or more than five times that of the Guard House, Hibernian Hall at 105 Meeting Street was rebuilt with a new Corinthian pediment replacing the original lonic one. The Greek Revival building, the only one in Charleston designed by famed Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, was completed in 1840 for the Hibernian Society, a benevolent society aiding Irish immigrants since 1801. The Hall is the only extant building associated with the 1860 Democratic Convention that saw a deeply divided party unable to reach a consensus leading to the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Hall is the site for society meetings, balls, an annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and other events.

Hibernian Hall, Charleston, S.C. col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Hibernian Hall, Charleston, S.C. col. 760, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

The earthquake’s aftermath was captured photographically in lantern slides, which are mounted glass transparencies projected onto a wall or a screen by a magic lantern for viewing. Commonly manufactured and sold in sets in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lantern slides were used for educational and entertainment purposes in public lectures and in-home displays. To see the library’s collection of the earthquake and other lantern slides, visit our digital collections at: http://content.winterthur.org:2011/cdm/landingpage/collection/lanterns.

Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

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One Response to The Day the Earth Shook

  1. Lynne Dakin Hastings says:

    Fascinating and terrifying! I was near the center of the Virginia quake a few years ago, and that was bad enough. Thanks for posting these remarkable photographs and accompanying background.

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