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1886 Charleston earthquake

Coordinates: 32°54′N 80°00′W / 32.9°N 80.0°W / 32.9; -80.0
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1886 Charleston earthquake
Damage on Tradd Street
1886 Charleston earthquake is located in South Carolina
1886 Charleston earthquake
1886 Charleston earthquake is located in the United States
1886 Charleston earthquake
UTC time1886-09-01 02:51:00
Local dateAugust 31, 1886 (1886-08-31)
Local time21:51
Magnitude6.9–7.3 Mw[1]
Epicenter32°54′N 80°00′W / 32.9°N 80.0°W / 32.9; -80.0[2]
Areas affectedSouth Carolina,
United States
Total damage$5–6 million[2]
Max. intensityMMI X (Extreme)[2]
Casualties60 deaths[2]

The 1886 Charleston earthquake in South Carolina occurred about 9:50 p.m. local time August 31. It caused 60 deaths and $5–6 million ($186.51 million in 2023) 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.[3]

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.[3]


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.[4] The earthquake was so severe that outside the immediate area, there was speculation that the Florida peninsula had broken away from North America.[5] There were at least 60 fatalities.

The long roll deepened and spread into an awful roar, that seemed to pervade at once the troubled earth and the still air above and around. The tremor was now a rude, rapid quiver, that agitated the whole lofty, strong-walled building as though it were being shaken--shaken by the hand of an immeasurable power, with intent to tear its joints asunder and scatter its stones and bricks abroad, as a tree casts its over-ripened fruit before the breath of the gale.

— Carl McKinley, "Chapter 1. The earthquake at Charleston" pg. 212, The Charleston earthquake of August 31, 1886 (1889) [6]

Sand boils were common throughout the affected area due to soil liquefaction. Aftershocks continued to be felt for weeks after the event.[5] Minor earthquake activity that still continues in the area in the early 21st century may be a continuation of aftershocks.[7]

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.

Roger Bilham and Susan Hough studied historical mapping projects published between 1884 and 1919 and discovered a 1 m (3 ft 3 in) uplift at Summerville along the South Carolina Railroad. Photographic evidence of the South Carolina Railroad southeast of Summerville also showed a right-lateral offset of 4.5 ± 0.3 m (14.76 ± 0.98 ft) on the track. Direct observation of the earthquake's effects also reported the rail bed being "forced to the right", supporting the identification of this offset. This offset occurred at the location of the Summerville Fault; the fault's position also aligns itself with the results of seismic reflection surveys. Seismicity of the area supports a north-northeast–south-southwest trending, west-dipping structure at an angle of 40–45°. They proposed a 27 km (17 mi) long rupture along the fault based on the description of extreme damage in Summerville and a lesser severity of damage in Pinopolis, further north of the proposed northern rupture termination.[8]


Building damage[edit]

One of many "earthquake bolts" found throughout period houses in Charleston
Charleston, SC Earthquake - 1886
Charleston, SC Earthquake - 1886

Within the city, many of the buildings sustained damage; some had to be torn down and rebuilt. The most prominent damage was done to buildings constructed out of brick, amounting to 81% of building damage. Buildings that had a wood frame suffered significantly less damage. Another factor that affected the percent of buildings destroyed was what kind of ground these buildings were built on. Buildings constructed on made ground were significantly more likely to be damaged than buildings constructed on solid ground; however, this relationship only occurred in wood-frame buildings, with 14% of wood-frame buildings built on made ground sustaining damage, compared to 0.5% of wood-frame buildings built on solid ground sustaining damage. This relationship was negligible as it pertains to the damage of buildings made of brick.[9]

The most prominent buildings that were destroyed were commercial buildings, while residential buildings sustained significantly less damage. This is due to the fact that commercial buildings were older, had a more prominent top compared to the base of the building, and were made of brick.[9]

The Old White Meeting House near Summerville, Dorchester County, South Carolina was reduced to ruins.[10]

Other man-made structures were also damaged as a result of earth splits caused by the earthquake. Railroad tracks in Charleston and nearby areas were snapped and trains were derailed. Dams broke, which caused a lot of flooding in surrounding farms and roads. The ground liquefied in many spots which further damaged many buildings, roads, bridges, and farm fields.[11]

Other damage[edit]

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. This would be about 112 million dollars today.[12] In total, there were about 60 deaths from the earthquake. The Charleston earthquake was then followed by a series of aftershocks. It was reported there to be 300 smaller aftershocks within the first 30 years following the earthquake in 1886 and 435 total.[13]

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.

Isoseismal map of the Eastern United States contoured to show the more localized variation' in the reported intensities for the 1886 Charleston earthquake. Contoured intensity levels are shown by Arabic numerals[14]


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. Additionally, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) has been created to plan disaster mitigation as well as respond to current disasters in order to reduce property damage and save lives.[15]

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.[16] A collection of his work is held by the Gibbes Museum of Art in the city.[17]

After the initial earthquake, for the next 30 years, there were 435 total aftershocks from the earthquake. Some of these started directly after the earthquake and were more frequent and the longer after the earthquake, the more spaced out the aftershocks were.[14]

The initial shock in Charleston lasted for about 45 seconds and was extremely destructive, leaving nearly all of the 8,000 city structures with either interior damage or broken windows. The first aftershock followed just ten minutes later, and had the city rumbling once again. In the next 24 hours, at least seven different aftershocks were felt in Charleston and its surrounding areas. The earthquake and its aftershocks caused damage to buildings in cities such as Savannah and Augusta, GA, as well as Columbia, SC, all of which are more than 100 miles from Charleston. The quake was even felt in cities as far as Boston and Chicago, where plaster fell from ceilings in upper floors of some buildings.[18]

It has been estimated that if an earthquake of this size were to occur in the same place today, it would result in an approximately $20 billion loss just in South Carolina, as well as approximately 900 deaths and 44,000 injuries.[19] However, as the earthquakes that have occurred in Charleston are large but infrequent, happening every 500–600 years, it is very unlikely that another earthquake of this size will occur any time soon.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chapman, M. C.; Beale, J. N.; Hardy, A. C.; Wu, Q. (2016), "Modern Seismicity and the Fault Responsible for the 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, Earthquake", Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 106 (2): 364–372, Bibcode:2016BuSSA.106..364C, doi:10.1785/0120150221
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ a b Bollinger, G. A. (1972), "Historical and recent seismic activity in South Carolina", Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 62 (3), Seismological Society of America: 851–864, Bibcode:1972BuSSA..62..851B, doi:10.1785/BSSA0620030851, S2CID 131932161
  4. ^ Charleston Quake, 1886, USGS, archived from the original on December 25, 2016, retrieved August 28, 2017
  5. ^ a b Pickney, Paul (1906), Lessions Learned from the Charleston Quake
  6. ^ 50th Congress, 2nd Session (1889), H.Ex.Doc. 50-1 - Report of the Secretary of the Interior, Volume IV: being part of the message and documents communicated to the two houses of Congress at the beginning of the ... session of the ... Congress, retrieved June 12, 2023
  7. ^ Modern earthquakes in US could be aftershocks from quakes in the 1800s, scientists say, 2023, retrieved December 4, 2023
  8. ^ Bilham, Roger; Hough, Susan E. (2023). "The 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, Earthquake: Relic Railroad Offset Reveals Rupture". The Seismic Record. 3 (4): 278–288. Bibcode:2023SeisR...3..278B. doi:10.1785/0320230022.
  9. ^ a b Robinson, Andrew; Talwani, Pradeep (April 1, 1983). "Building damage at Charleston, South Carolina, associated with the 1886 earthquake". Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. 73 (2): 633–652. Bibcode:1983BuSSA..73..633R. doi:10.1785/bssa0730020633. ISSN 1943-3573.
  10. ^ "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.
  11. ^ Zalzal, Kate. "Benchmarks: August 31, 1886: Magnitude-7 earthquake rocks Charleston, South Carolina". www.earthmagazine.org. Archived from the original on October 29, 2018. Retrieved December 1, 2021.
  12. ^ "Earthquake shakes Charleston, South Carolina". HISTORY. Retrieved October 20, 2021.
  13. ^ "Benchmarks: August 31, 1886: Magnitude-7 earthquake rocks Charleston, South Carolina". www.earthmagazine.org. Retrieved October 20, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Nuttli, Otto W.; Bollinger, G. A.; Herrmann, Robert B. "The 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, Earthquake - A 1986 Perspective" (PDF). USGS. Circular. doi:10.3133/cir985. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 16, 2017.
  15. ^ Kevin P. Corbley (Winter 2002–2003). "South Carolina Devises Earthquake Preparedness Plan With GIS". ArcNews. Retrieved December 2, 2021 – via Esri News.
  16. ^ "Telling Tales". Charleston Magazine. September 24, 2019.
  17. ^ "Cook, George LaGrange - American".
  18. ^ Smith, Bruce (August 31, 1986). "Charleston Still Shaking With Memories of 1886 Earthquake". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on November 30, 2021.
  19. ^ Hayati, Hossein; Andrus, Ronald D. (June 2008). "Liquefaction Potential Map of Charleston, South Carolina Based on the 1886 Earthquake". Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering. 134 (6): 815–828. doi:10.1061/(asce)1090-0241(2008)134:6(815). ISSN 1090-0241.
  20. ^ Ertle, Jamie (September 30, 2021). "Seismologist discusses recent earthquakes in Lowcountry". www.wtoc.com. Retrieved December 2, 2021.

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