1886 Charleston earthquake

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1886 Charleston earthquake
1886 Charleston earthquake is located in South Carolina
1886 Charleston earthquake
UTC time1886-09-01 02:51:00
Local dateAugust 31, 1886 (1886-08-31)
Local time21:51
Magnitude7.0 Mw
Epicenter32°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 affectedSouth Carolina,
United States
Total damage$5–6 million[1]
Max. intensityX (Extreme)[1]

The 1886 Charleston earthquake occurred about 9:50 p.m. local time August 31. It caused 60 deaths and $5–6 million ($158.42 million in 2020) in damage to 2,000 buildings in the Southeastern United States. It is one of the most powerful and damaging earthquakes to hit the East Coast of the United States.[2]

Scientists have classified it as an intraplate earthquake, and said that it had an estimated moment magnitude of 6.9–7.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of X (Extreme). Very little to no historical earthquake activity had occurred in this region, which is unusual for any seismic area.[2]


Damage on Tradd Street

The shock was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, to the north, Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the northwest, New Orleans, Louisiana, to the west, and across water to Cuba to the south, and Bermuda to the east.[3] The earthquake was so severe that outside the immediate area, there was speculation that the Florida peninsula had broken away from North America.[4] There were at least 60 fatalities.

Sand boils were common throughout the affected area due to soil liquefaction. Aftershocks continued to be felt for weeks after the event.[4] Minor earthquake activity that still continues in the area in the early 21st century may be a continuation of aftershocks.

With the development of earthquake studies and technology, this event has been extensively studied as an 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, many of the buildings sustained damage; some 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 $5 million and $6 million.

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

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


Many building owners added earthquake bolts to existing unreinforced masonry buildings in order to add support to the structure to avoid having to demolish it because of instability. The bolts pass through the existing masonry walls, tying walls on opposite sides of the structure together for stability.

Local photographer George LaGrange Cook took a series of photographs of the city after the quake, publishing them as Cook's Earthquake Views of Charleston and Vicinity.[6] A collection of his work is held by the Gibbes Museum of Art in the city.[7]

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 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
  3. ^ Charleston Quake, 1886, USGS, archived from the original on December 25, 2016, retrieved August 28, 2017
  4. ^ a b Pickney, Paul (1906), Lessions Learned from the Charleston Quake
  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 July 5, 2012.
  6. ^ "Telling Tales". Charleston Magazine. September 24, 2019.
  7. ^ "Cook, George LaGrange - American".

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