Charleston Earthquake of 1886

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.

The seismic history of the southeastern United States is dominated by the 1886 earthquake that occurred in the Coastal Plain near Charleston, South Carolina. It was one of the largest historic earthquakes in eastern North America, and by far the largest earthquake in the southeastern United States. A major shock, occurred August 31, 1886 at approximately 9:50 p.m. and lasted less than one minute, but resulted in about sixty deaths and extensive damage to the city of Charleston. Because the event took place before seismological instrumentation, estimates of its location and size must come from observations of the damage and effects caused by the earthquake.

The Charleston Earthquake of 1886 was the most damaging quake to hit the Southeastern United States. It occurred at 9:50 p.m. on August 31, 1886, and lasted just under a minute. The earthquake caused severe damage in Charleston, South Carolina, damaging 2,000 buildings and causing $6 million worth in damages, while in the whole city the buildings were only valued at approximately $24 million. Between 60 and 110 lives were lost. Some of the damage is still seen today.

Major damage occurred as far away as Tybee Island, Georgia (over 60 miles away) and structural damage was reported several hundred miles from Charleston (including central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia). It was felt as far away as Boston to the north, Chicago and Milwaukee to the northwest, as far west as New Orleans, as far south as Cuba, and as far east as Bermuda.

The earthquake is estimated to have been between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale with a Mercalli Intensity of X. Sandblows were common throughout the affected area due to liquefaction of the soil. More than 300 aftershocks of the 1886 earthquake occurred within thirty-five years. Minor earthquake activity that still continues in the area today may be a continuation of aftershocks. Very little to no historical earthquake activity occurred in the Charleston area prior to the 1886 event, which is unusual for any seismic area. This may have contributed to the severity of the tremor.