As Seen On
May 21, 2006
By Richard N. Côté
At 9:51 PM on August 31, 1886, William Ashmead Courtenay, the much-respected
mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, was relaxing aboard the Etruria,
an elite luxury liner bound for New York from Liverpool. At that same
moment, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit the East Coast struck
South Carolina and devastated Charleston, killing over 150 people and
damaging or destroying over 90% of the historic city’s masonry buildings
within sixty seconds. Within ten minutes, it had spread terror throughout
half the nation, causing panic and damage as far north as Toronto, east
to Long Island, south to Cuba, and west to St. Louis. The nation was stunned.
No one in Charleston, or anywhere on the East coast, ever thought such
an unthinkable catastrophe of such magnitude could possibly strike east
of the Mississippi. They were very, very wrong.
of Heroes: The Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886, is a
riveting, action-packed, heavily illustrated non-fiction book filled with
gripping, first-hand accounts of the earthquake, drawn directly from newspapers,
personal diaries, journals, and letters of the earthquake survivors. It
will also follow the earthquake scientists who descended upon Charleston
to discover what caused the disaster. But above all, it identifies the
noble and heartwarming acts of numerous unsung heroes, black and white,
inspired and led by Charleston’s extraordinary mayor, William A.
Courtenay. Working together, they saved numerous lives, nursed the wounded,
fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless - and enabled Charleston to
make a full recovery from the massive disaster in only fourteen months!
City of Heroes will be published in the spring of 2006. To receive
news updates about the book and notification when it is released, enter
your email address below in the box named “Sign up for E-news.”
In late summer 1886, earthquakes were not a hot topic of conversation
in the elegant, historic port city of Charleston, South Carolina. Nevertheless,
something suspicious was definitely underway-and under foot. In the
spring of that year, a small tremor knocked several books off the shelves
at the library of the College of Charleston. Other than the librarian,
few people were aware of the event. Another tremor came along that June,
but it also passed virtually unnoticed.
On Friday, August 27, a moderate earthquake was felt at 1:30 a.m. in Summerville,
a pineland village of 1,800 souls twenty-two miles northwest of Charleston.
Most of the villagers blissfully slept through it. But the events later
that morning definitely caught their attention. At 8:30 a.m., the residents
were startled by “an explosive sound,” followed by “a
decided shock,” which caused many to run from their houses. Nevertheless,
there was no significant damage to the village.
In Charleston, several members of the News and Courier staff were aware
of the events in Summerville, but few other city-dwellers noticed. When
a Charleston resident telegraphed the news to the Atlanta Constitution,
the editors scoffed. They wrote on the 28th, “A telegram from Charleston
announces an earthquake near that place yesterday. This is merely imagination.
It was simply the shock accompanying the announcement that Atlanta had
won yesterday’s [baseball] game from Memphis, ensuring it the pennant.”
On Saturday afternoon, the 28th, at 1:45 p.m., a stronger shock flung
a bed against the wall of one Summerville house. In other homes, window
glass and crockery were broken. Several aftershocks were also felt that
day, some as far away as Augusta, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
The next day, there was yet another. Although the villagers were becoming
more nervous because of the increasing frequency of the tremors, Charlestonians
remained largely unconcerned.
On the evening of August 31, 1886, everything in Charleston and the surrounding
area was perfectly normal. Just before ten o’clock, Assistant Editor
Carlyle “Carl” McKinley was editing the September 1 edition
of the News and Courier, which would be printed later that night.
A few doors down Broad Street from the newspaper office, Julian M. Bacot,
an up-and-coming young attorney, had been working late. After walking
the eight blocks to his home on Coming Street, he sat down at 9:40 p.m.
to make the daily entry into his diary. He dutifully inked his pen and
started writing, even though nothing more interesting had happened that
day than a slight shower around dinnertime.
A few blocks away, on Meeting Street, near the corner of Broad, Sarah
Middleton, a twenty-five-year-old black woman, was walking along the east
side of the Guard House, Charleston’s main police station. She had
just finished her work as a washerwoman for one of Charleston’s
white families and was on her way home.
Edward Laight Wells, a prosperous cotton broker and prolific author, had
been reading at his home on near Water Street, on the northeast side of
the peninsula. A few minutes before ten, he put down his book and walked
to a window that offered him a beautiful view of the harbor. He described
the water as looking like a mirror, “reflecting & multiplying
the many lights that twinkled on their surface, which hung from the rigging
of the vessels at anchor opposite the windows of my house. The stars were
shining brightly & a soft tender light enveloped everything. It was
a charming night,” he wrote.
Just off Church Street, in a particularly notorious alley known for its
brothels, two prostitutes were plying their trade.
The inbound passenger train from the upstate had recently arrived, carrying
its usual load of vacationers returning from the mountain resorts of North
Carolina. After helping his passengers disembark, Harvey G. Senseney,
the baggage master, hopped onto a horse-drawn trolley car and headed home
to his apartment on northern King Street.
The Charleston and Savannah Railway’s night train, with Mr. Burns
at the throttle and his fireman, Mr. Arnold, shoveling coal into the boiler’s
furnace, had left the city, heading out through the dark night for Augusta,
Georgia. The inbound night train from Columbia, though delayed for unknown
reasons, was expected to arrive in Charleston soon.
In his lodgings at 20 Meeting Street, in the heart of the ancient peninsular
city, Robert Alexander, a twenty-four-year-old London native, was preparing
for bed. An analytical chemist, he had only been in Charleston for five
months. The well-liked young man had recently bought a small steam pleasure
yacht and had taken his first trip in it the previous evening.
At The Moultrie House, a popular beach resort on nearby Sullivan’s
Island, mothers had tucked their children into bed, opening the windows
wide to catch the cool, onshore sea breezes. At the other end of the building,
young adults and their parents were dancing at the hop being held there
Two hundred fifty miles to the northwest, the Reverend Anthony Toomer
Porter, rector of Charleston’s Holy Communion Episcopal Church,
was seated in the parlor of his vacation home. It was perched on a mountainside
in the Great Smoky Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, a favorite
summer destination for affluent Charleston families. From his invalid
wife’s bedchamber a floor above, he heard strange noises. They continued
so long that he went to the foot of the stairs and called to her nurse,
asking why she was moving the furniture in his wife’s room. The
nurse replied, “We thought you were moving the drawing-room furniture,
for we heard the same noise; I thought it strange.”
Next, Porter heard what sounded like the wheels of many vehicles, apparently
driving up the mountain very fast--something completely unlikely at that
time and place. Then came the sound of many railroad cars--but there was
no railroad in the mountains. Immediately after the sounds, one corner
of his house was thrown up, landing with a thud moments later.
At that point, Porter realized they were in the middle of an earthquake.
He rushed to his wife’s side and instructed the rest of the family
to flee the house, but the shocks subsided. The neighbors were wild with
excitement, and he soon learned that the earthquake had been felt more
in the valley below than further up. At Asheville’s city hall, vibrations
in the turret had caused the bell to toll, but most residents, though
alarmed, believed that the seismic shock was a local event. After a few
hours, Porter and his neighbors went back to bed.
The next day, Wednesday, around noon, one of Rev. Porter’s neighbors
received a frightening telegram from Columbia, South Carolina, about one
hundred miles northwest of Charleston. It read, “We are all safe,
but poor Charleston,” and nothing more.
Concerned for the safety of his aged mother, an aunt, and a niece, who
lived in his Charleston house, and worried about the condition of his
church and its large private school, Porter wrote, “We all began
at once to telegraph Charleston, but received no response.”
It was not until eleven o’clock that night that he and his neighbors
began to get news. A half-sentence would come through the telegraphthen
silence. After several hours of incessant telegraphing, Porter and the
others patched together enough information to draw a frightening conclusion:
Charleston had been destroyed.
The most powerful earthquake ever to strike east of the Mississippi had
unleashed an immense burst of seismic energy that had been accumulating
deep beneath the earth’s crust for hundreds of years. Ten seconds
after it started, Charleston was in chaos. The entire population was driven
into the streets. Some buildings were destroyed outright or condemned
to fall soon after. Whether owned by the rich or the poor, commercial
or residential, brick or wood, and regardless of their location on high
ground or filled-in land, every building in the city was damaged.
What happened after the Great Charleston Earthquake struck at 9:51 p.m.
on August 31, 1886, was devastating beyond imagination. But what occurred
after the earth stopped trembling was even more amazing. In the fourteen
months to follow, a legion of heroes, some prominent, others whose names
will never be known, stepped forward to carry out the most rapid, inspiring,
and heart-warming rebirth any disaster-stricken city in America had ever
experienced. This is their story.
Copyright © 2005 by Richard N. Côté.
All rights reserved.