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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.

City 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 that evening.

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.

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