Historic Earthquakes

Charleston, South Carolina
1886 September 01 02:51 UTC (local August 31)
Magnitude 7.3
Intensity X

Largest Earthquake in South Carolina

Charleston, 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.

1886 Charleston, SC earthquake 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, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.

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