Charleston, South Carolina
August 31, 1886: Charleston, South Carolina is devastated by an earthquake. It was believed to have been a 7.0 Mw or moment magnitude earthquake. This scale replaced the Richter scale in the 1970s. The number is based on the seismic moment of the earthquake which is equal to the rigidity of the Earth multiplied by the average amount of slip on the fault and the size of the area which slipped. The numbers used are similar to the Richter scale and when reports use the older designation, there is little confusion as to the intensity of the quake. On the Mercalli Intensity scale, it was rated an X or Extreme. This scale is based on the effects of the earthquake rather than the magnitude of the fault slip. It quantifies the damage to humans, objects of nature, and manmade objects and begins at I and ends at XII or total destruction.
The earthquake struck at 9.50 PM with the epicenter at 32.9°N 80.0°W (Charleston’s coordinates are listed as 32°47′00″N 79°56′00″W). It was one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the East Coast of the US. The 1811 and 1812 New Madrid, Missouri earthquakes were more powerful. The activity was caused by intraplate earthquake, an extremely rare phenomenon where the quake takes place at the interior of a single tectonic plate. A far more common occurrence is the interplate earthquake which takes place at the boundary between two or more plates. All three of the mentioned quakes caused great damage and were intraplate quakes.
There were 60 deaths attributed to the earthquake and damage was listed between $5 and 6 million ($130 to 156 million today). Much of the destruction of both life and property was caused by the liquefaction of the soil. Aftershocks continued for weeks after the event. There is some supposition that the small quakes still felt in the region to this day are still aftershocks from this one event. On this night, the shock was felt as far away as Boston to the north, Chicago and Milwaukee to the northwest, New Orleans to the west and Cuba to the south. At the time, there was speculation that such damage could only have been caused by the state of Florida having broken away from North America.
There were at least 2,000 buildings damaged by the quake. Within the city itself, most of the buildings sustained damage and many of them were beyond repair. They were simply torn down and rebuilt. Historical Charleston today shows the after effects of the quake in that many of the building which did survive are now sporting “earthquake bolts” where the building were repaired. Wires were downed and the railroad tracks were torn apart, cutting Charleston off from the outside world. Major damage occurred as far away as Tybee Island, 60 miles away. Buildings far away in central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia were damaged by the quake.
It was about 9:50 o’clock on the evening of August 31, 1886, that the people of Charleston felt the quiverings of the first earthquake shock ever known in that part of the country. They had just returned from worship and not many had yet retired.
There were no electric lights in those days, and the streets were illuminated with gas. The people gathered in the public parks and squares and there in the dim light brave men and women gave help to the injured and dying.
St. Michael’s Church, the pride of the city since 1761, was a wreck, its tall steeple lying in the street.
To add to their dismay the people were cut off from the outer world, all wires being down, and it was not until next day that a courier rode to Summerville, nearly thirty miles away, and gave the world its first news of the disaster. – all from Paul Pinckney
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Go West – In 1803, Meriwether Lewis began his great Expedition when he left Pittsburgh.
Air Disaster – In 1940, a plane crashed near Lovettsville, Virginia.