Calhoun Street

South Carolina’s Earthquake Shocks in 1886

On the last night of August, in 1886, the people of Mecklenburg were shaken up, and many of them alarmed at the convulsions of nature. Some few persons who had a clear conscience and a good digestion, slept on as peacefully as an infant. The first came about 10 o’clock, probably one-third of the people in Mecklenburg were asleep, and many of those who had done a hard day’s work, did not awake. But on the farms the negroes were badly frightened; they called their nearest neighbors to come to their relief; some prayed aloud with great earnestness; others thought some enemy was trying to pull down their house, and they were defending their premises with rifles, pistols, shot guns, or anything they could get hold of.

Broad Street, east of Church Street

Broad Street, east of Church Street

Cries of distress and fear could be heard on all sides, that were truly distressing. A large family who lived in a large house, some of the members had retired, and the father had partaken too freely of his cups to be reasoned with, when the family all got safely out of the house, begged the father to get up and come out of the house, that judgment day had come. Immediately the firm answer came back, “Go back to your beds you fools you, don’t you know judgment day is not coming in the night?” How many people will leave home when great fear comes upon them; they are hunting sympathy, or protection. In a negro church near Huntersville, the house was crowded when the first shock was felt, but the preacher partially quieted the alarm, saying, “If that is some mischievous persons doing that, they will be afraid to do it again; but if it’s the Lord, look out.” Just at the instant the house was shaken more violently than before, when the negroes poured out the doors and windows, and over the heads of those who did not move fast enough—it was a panic.

A religious awakening was started among both whites and blacks; but, like all revivals that spring from fear, it soon passed away.

Queen Street, Roper Hospital

Queen Street, Roper Hospital

August 31, 1886, was the date of the great earthquake of the century. Its centre was near Charleston, S. C. Probably its centre was in the Atlantic ocean near Charleston. The damage to buildings and railroads was very great. The ground in many places near the coast was sunken several feet and in other places was raised, making it appear in waves. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the damages to buildings and railroads. In the up-country but comparatively little damage was done to buildings, except that brick buildings were cracked and rendered unsafe. A perfect pandemonium of fear and alarm ran riot over the country. The people were not educated in the behavior of earthquakes, and not one out of fifty persons knew what it was. Of course fright and fear filled the hearts of most persons who had no knowledge of such phenomena. In every direction in the country you could hear cries of dirtress—one person called to another to come to them. The lamps setting about in the houses were shaken so violently that they were taken from the mantle or table and put on the floor.

Many persons who paid no attention to religion were persuaded through fear that they needed assistance from a higher power. Loud prayers and strong crying was heard in many places, and many joined the Church.

Archdale Street, Unitarian Church interior damage.

Archdale Street, Unitarian Church interior damage.

A friend of mine coming home from Church in the upper part of this county, said when he heard the rumbling noise that accompanied the earthquake, he immediately got off the track of the railroad, thinking it was the train coming. Others saw electric balls of fire flashing along the track. I had two little boys, 15 years old, sleeping out in my office, who ran into my dwelling house after the first shock, and I asked them “what the dog was barking at so furiously.” They said, “Somebody’s horses and wagon went by the office like a whirlwind.” This noise was from southeast to northwest; such appeared to be the course of the cesmic disturbance.

These shocks were continued for several days, at intervals of a few moments to several hours. This is a fair statement of what took place in one hundred miles of Charlotte. But the nearer you approch to Charleston, or the centre of the disturbance, the greater was the destruction of property, many houses were rendered unsafe, and some were shaken down.


The History Of Mecklenburg County From 1740 to 1900 by J. B. ALEXANDER, M.D. in our American County Histories collection.

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