1886 Charleston Earthquake

Largest Earthquake in South Carolina

This is the most damaging earthquake to occur in the Southeast United States and one of the largest historic shocks in Eastern North America. It damaged or destroyed many buildings in the old city of Charleston and killed 60 people. Hardly a structure there was undamaged, and only a few escaped serious damage. Property damage was estimated at $5-$6 million. Structural damage was reported several hundred kilometers from Charleston (including central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia), and long-period effects were observed at distances exceeding 1,000 kilometers.

Effects in the epicentral region included about 80 kilometers of severely damaged railroad track and more than 1,300 square kilometers of extensive cratering and fissuring. Damage to railroad tracks, about 6 kilometers northwest of Charleston, included lateral and vertical displacement of tracks, formation of S-shaped curves and longitudinal movement.

The formation of sand craterlets and the ejection of sand were widespread in the epicentral area, but surface faulting was not observed. Many acres of ground were overflowed with sand, and craterlets as much as 6.4 meters across were formed. In a few locations, water from the craterlets spouted to heights of about 4.5 to 6 meters. Fissures 1 meter wide extended parallel to canal and stream banks. A series of wide cracks opened parallel to the Ashley River, and several large trees were uprooted when the bank slid into the river.

At Summerville, a small town of 2,000 population, 25 kilometers northwest of Charleston, many houses settled in an inclined position or were displaced as much as 5 centimeters. Chimneys constructed independently of the houses commonly had the part above the roofline thrown to the ground. Many chimneys were crushed at their bases, allowing the whole chimney to sink down through the floors. The absence of overturning in piered structures and the nature of the damage to chimneys have been interpreted as evidence that the predominant motion was vertical.

The meizoseismal area of MM intensity X effects is an elliptical area, roughly 35 by 50 kilometers, trending northeast between Charleston and Jedburg and including Summerville. Middleton Place, about in the center of this ellipse, is at the southeast end of a zone (perhaps 15 kilometers long) of microearthquake activity that still continues today. This seismic activity may be a continuation of the 1886 aftershock series.

The intraplate epicenter of this major shock is not unique for large earthquakes in the Eastern and Central United States. Other intraplate earthquakes include those at Cape Ann, Massachusetts (1755), and New Madrid, Missouri (1811-1812). Earthquakes occurring along boundaries of plates (e.g., San Francisco, 1906) are well understood in terms of plate tectonics, but those occurring within plates are not similarly understood. This problem still is being studied more than 100 years after the earthquake.

This earthquake was reported from distant places such as Boston, Massachusetts; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois; Cuba and Bermuda. - Abridged from Seismicity of the United States, 1568-1989 (Revised), by Carl W Stover and Jerry L Coffman, US Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.


Y/M/D Description Place
1886/08/31 Two hundred and 60 miles from Charleston in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Rev Drayton hears a distant rumbling noise coming from Magnolia-on-the-Ashley. Flat Rock Historic District, Flat Rock
1886/08/31 Charleston Earthquake destroys plantation buildings and cracks the Drayton family tomb at Magnolia-on-the-Ashley. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston
1886/08/31 At Summerville, a small town of 2,000 about 25 km NW of Charleston, the 1886 Earthquake displaces houses as much as 5 cm and drops many into an inclined position. Summerville, South Carolina
1886/08/31 The entire St Michael's steeple sinks eight inches during the earthquake in 1886 St Michael's Episcopal Church, Charleston
1886/08/31 The Octagonal Wing is seriously damaged by the Charleston Earthquake and has to be trussed. William Aiken House and Associated Railroad Structures, Charleston
1886/08/31 Old White Meeting House is demolished by the Charleston Earthquake. Old White Meeting House Ruins and Cemetery, Summerville
1886/08/31 Charleston, South Carolina is hit with an estimated 7.3 magnitude earthquake, causing widespread destruction and killing about 60 people. Charleston, South Carolina
1886/08/31 The entire west gable end wall of St James Church collapses during the earthquake of 1886. St James' Church, Goose Creek, Goose Creek
1886/08/31 Charleston Earthquake rattles Fruitland Nursery, creating several cracks in the concrete walls of the Main House. Augusta National Golf Course, Augusta
1886/08/31 Charleston Earthquake topples the gutted walls of the Main House and North Flanker at Middleton Place. Middleton Place, Summerville
1886/08/31 Crowfield Hall is virtually destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1886 (partial walls remain). Crowfield Golf and Country Club, Goose Creek
1886/09/00 Frederic Remington covers the Charleston, Earthquake for Harper's Weekly.
1886/09/00 After the earthquake of 1886, iron rods are installed through each end, from front to back and from side to side, to shore up St Stephens' walls. St Stephen's Episcopal Church, St Stephen

Data »

Seismic Event: Earthquake
Tectonic plate: North American Plate

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