Timeless Lowcountry Discovery

Earthquake Bolts

What are earthquake bolts?

A visit to Charleston is not complete without a stroll by our many beautiful historic homes. The lovely architecture and colors are complemented by lush gardens, all carefully preserved to look much like they did in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But, what are those metal ornaments affixed to the outside walls of many of Charleston’s oldest buildings? They are earthquake bolts, placed there after the great earthquake of 1886.

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 6 million dollars at a time when the value of the entire city was around 24 million. Sixty people died in the quake and almost no building was left intact.

Form and Function: Earthquake bolts stabilize and decorate

Earthquake bolts took on decorative form after their integral function.
While most earthquake bolts are aesthetically plain, whimsical colors add decorative panache to the many historic homes they tether.

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 marvelous example of decorative earthquake bolts in Charleston SC.
Some homes take the function of earthquake bolts to higher levels by adding decorating caps to the heavy iron rods.

Just when we think we know where they all are, someone tells us of another quaint home fancifully strengthened by these marvelous inventions. Share what you see on our Insta @charleston_gateway and let everyone else know too!