1886 Charleston earthquake

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1886 Charleston earthquake
1886 Charleston earthquake is located in South Carolina
1886 Charleston earthquake
Date August 31, 1886 (1886-08-31)
Magnitude 7.3 ML
Epicenter 32°54′N 80°00′W / 32.9°N 80.0°W / 32.9; -80.0Coordinates: 32°54′N 80°00′W / 32.9°N 80.0°W / 32.9; -80.0 [1]
Areas affected United States, South Carolina
Total damage 5–6 million [1]
Max. intensity X (Intense) [1]
Casualties 60 [1]

The 1886 Charleston earthquake hit Charleston, South Carolina and the East Coast of the United States on August 31. After the 1811 and 1812 earthquakes in New Madrid, Missouri, it is one of the most powerful and damaging earthquakes to hit the southeastern United States. The intraplate event occurred at about 9:50 pm and lasted just under a minute. It caused severe damage in Charleston, damaging 2,000 buildings and causing between five and eight million worth in damage[2]($125 to 200 million in 2014 dollars), while in the whole city the buildings were only valued at approximately $24 million. Between 60 and 110 lives were lost. Very little to no historical earthquake activity occurred in the area prior to it, which is unusual for any seismic area.[3]


Damage from Charleston earthquake of August 31, 1886

The earthquake is estimated to have been between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale with a Mercalli Intensity of X. Sandblows were common throughout the affected area due to liquefaction of the soil. Aftershocks continued to be felt for weeks after the event[2] and minor earthquake activity that still continues in the area today may be a continuation of aftershocks. There were at least sixty fatalities.

It 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.[4] It was so severe that outside the immediate area, there was speculation that the Florida peninsula had broken away from North America.[2]

It is a heavily studied example of an intraplate earthquake. It is believed to have occurred on faults formed during the break-up of Pangaea. Similar faults are found all along the east coast of North America. It is thought that such ancient faults remain active from forces exerted on them by present-day motions of the North American Plate. The exact mechanisms of intraplate earthquakes are a subject of much ongoing research.


One of many "earthquake bolts" found throughout period houses in Charleston

Within the city almost all of the buildings sustained damage and most had to be torn down and rebuilt. Wires were cut and the railroad tracks were torn apart, cutting residents off from the outside world and vice versa. The damage was assessed to be between five and eight million dollars.

Major damage occurred as far away as Tybee Island, Georgia, (more than 60 miles away) and structural damage was reported several hundred miles from Charleston (including central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia and western West Virginia).

Earthquake bolts were added to existing unreinforced masonry buildings to add support to the structure without having to demolish the structure due to instability. The bolts pass through the existing masonry walls tying walls on opposite sides of the structure together for stability.

The Old White Meeting House near Summerville, Dorchester County, South Carolina was reduced to ruins.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Stover, C.W.; Coffman, J.L. (1993), Seismicity of the United States, 1568–1989 (Revised), U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, pp. 348–351 
  2. ^ a b c Pickney, Paul (1906), Lessions Learned from the Charleston Quake 
  3. ^ Bollinger, G. A. (1972), "Historical and recent seismic activity in South Carolina", Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (Seismological Society of America) 62 (3): 851–864 
  4. ^ Charleston Quake, 1886, USGS 
  5. ^ "Old White Meeting House Ruins and Cemetery, Dorchester County (SC Hwy 642, Summerville vicinity)". National Register Properties in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Retrieved 5 July 2012. 

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