When the earth rumbled and his family’s farmhouse started “shaking like a leaf” that warm August evening almost a century ago, Willie Dewberry thought Judgment Day had arrived.
“Some folks said it was a storm. I told them, ‘That ain’t no storm.’ There wasn’t no lightning flashing, no thunder rolling, no wind blowing and no rain falling. It was a shake. It shaked up everything,” recalled Dewberry, who was born in 1870.
Similar thoughts of Judgment Day must have raced through the minds of Charleston residents when they heard the city’s church bells pealing on Aug. 31, 1886.
The earthquake, considered the most destructive ever to have struck the East Coast, claimed up to 110 lives.
The temblor and ensuing fires seriously damaged 90% of Charleston’s 1,450 masonry buildings. Virtually all of the 8,000 structures in the city suffered interior damage or broken windows. An estimated 95% of the city’s estimated 14,000 chimneys tumbled into the streets.
Dewberry, who over the years has worked as a farmer, soldier and railroad worker, walks with a cane but lives alone in a white frame house in Summerville, about 20 miles northwest of Charleston.
Ran Outside House
When the quake hit, he said, he was inside his family’s house with his parents and 12 brothers and sisters on an 85-acre farm about 35 miles from Charleston.
“When the house started shaking we all got scared. Everyone stayed in the house but me. I come out and crawled to the barn,” he recalled in an interview. “I had more confidence in the barn than the house.
“I just knew the Judgment Day had arrived,” he said.
Dewberry said he climbed into a corn crib in the barn and waited for the earth to stop shaking. When he came out of the barn next day, the family residence was undamaged, but his mother’s dishes were shattered.
In Charleston, the toll was more severe.
“The floors were heaving, the surrounding walls and partitions visibly swayed to and fro, the crash of falling masses of stone and brick mortar was heard overhead, and without the terrible roar filled the ears and seemed to fill the mind and heart,” wrote Carl McKinley, an editor at The News and Courier who was in the newspaper offices that Tuesday when the quake struck at 9:51 p.m.
The first shock lasted 45 seconds and was followed by a second rumbling 10 minutes later. At least seven aftershocks were felt in the area over the next 24 hours. There had been warning tremors on previous days in Charleston and in Summerville.
“As we dashed down the stairway and into the streets, from every quarter arose the shrieks, the cries of pain and fear, the prayers and the wailing of terrified women and children,” McKinley wrote.
“Through the cloud dense as fog, the gas jets flickered feebly, shedding but a little light, so that one stumbled at every step over piles of bricks or became entangled in the telegraph wires that depended in every direction from their broken supports.
“On every side were hurrying forms of men and women, bareheaded, partially dressed, some almost nude, and all nearly crazed with fear and excitement.”
Charlestonians brought many of the dead and injured to the city’s public parks. Many people camped out for more than a week, although within two days some businesses resumed.
The earthquake, later estimated at 7.7 on the Richter scale, was centered near Middleton Place, northwest of Charleston. In that wooded marshy area, sand and water spit into the air from fissures in the earth.
Damage was estimated at $5.5 million, more than $25 million in 1986 dollars.
An earthquake vulnerability study compiled by researchers at The Citadel in Charleston estimated that a quake of the 1886 magnitude, if it occurred today, could cause billions of dollars in damage and claim as many as 1,600 lives.
The 1886 quake and its aftershocks damaged buildings and destroyed chimneys in Savannah and Augusta, Ga., and in Columbia, S.C., each city more than 100 miles away.
The quake was felt as far away as Boston and in Chicago, where plaster fell from the ceilings in the upper floors of some buildings.
Cause a Puzzle
A century later, scientists still disagree over what caused the earth to move. Unlike earthquake faults on the West Coast, which can be near the surface and easily recognized, faults on the East Coast are often buried miles beneath the Earth.
Pradeep Talwani, a geologist at the University of South Carolina, claims to have discovered the structures that caused the great quake--the interaction of two separate faults beneath the Charleston area.
The Ashley River fault is a vertical fault about 2 1/2-to-4 miles deep running close to the river near Middleton Place. The Woodstock fault is a horizontal fault 5 1/2-to-8 miles deep running between Rantowles and Jedburg in South Carolina, Talwani said.
“From the dimensions of these faults, we think the Woodstock fault was associated with the larger earthquake in 1886. Most of the current earthquake activity is along the Ashley River fault,” he said.
Greg Gohn, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., said one problem in trying to discover the cause of the earthquake is that little is known about the geology of the Charleston area.
Unlike California, “nature isn’t helping out because we don’t have an area with a lot of earthquakes,” he said.
However, earthquake activity continues in South Carolina, with 12 measurable quakes this year, according to Joyce Bagwell, the director of the Earthquake Education Center at Baptist College at Charleston.
The strongest recent quake in the Charleston area was measured at 3.6 in November, 1983. Such an earthquake is strong enough to be felt but can cause only slight damage locally.