After the devastation of the Civil War, Charleston was but a shadow of her former self. Then, in 1885, two major hurricanes hit our city and left more destruction in their wake. A very subdued Charleston then faced an even greater disaster, the earthquake of 1886.
At 9:50 pm, on August 31, 1886, an earthquake estimated to measure 6.6 to 7.3 on the Richter scale hit Charleston. Most people had gone to bed by this time and it is hard to imagine how frightened they must have been as this earthquake threw them from their beds, and ceilings collapsed around them. Damage was estimated to be around six million dollars at a time when the value of the entire city was around 24 million. Sixty to one hundred people died in the quake and almost no building was left intact.
The shock was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, to the north, Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the northwest, as far as New Orleans, Louisiana, to the west, as far as Cuba to the south, and as far as Bermuda to the east. Aftershocks continued to be felt for weeks after the event and minor earthquake activity that still continues in the area today may be a continuation of aftershocks.
But, the spirit of Charleston is stronger than even this great earthquake. Repairs began immediately, and for months many residents lived in tents throughout the city. Long iron rods were inserted through the walls of brick and wooden structures and tightened with bolts on the outside surface to bring them back into alignment. These large metal disks became such an attraction that the decorative iron bolts have been incorporated into recent construction. Today, these bolts can be seen as crosses, stars and even lion’s heads affixed to the outside of many of our historic homes and museums.
A century later, scientists still disagree over what caused the earth to move. Unlike earthquake faults on the West Coast, which can be near the surface and easily recognized, faults on the East Coast are often buried miles beneath the Earth. Today, South Carolina averages 10–15 earthquakes a year below magnitude 3, but another quake of this magnitude remains highly unlikely.