In 1865 at the end of the Civil War, the village of Summerville found itself in uncharted waters. Even though the southern states didn’t think they would lose the war, they did. Their way of life had changed. There was no more slavery in the United States. The plantation owners no longer owned their workers. Slave labor became wage labor. Not only was this a hard time for former slave owners, it was also a hard time for some of the former slaves. It was a time when everyone had to take full responsibility for them selves. In the next few years of Summerville’s history two terrible things would happen, an earthquake and a down town fire. On the good side a much-needed miracle would transpire.
It was 9:51 p.m. on Tuesday, August 31, 1886. Most people were in bed after a hard days work. It was then it happened! People found themselves thrown out of bed, walls were moving back and forth, and trees were following, some into the houses. Shelves in the library or on the walls came crashing down and windows were breaking. People were jolted awake as ceilings and other debris started falling. What people were feeling was a huge earthquake. It registered at 7.4 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was right here in Summerville, but it became known as the ‘Charleston Earthquake”. 60 people in Charleston did lose their lives that night due to the earthquake. No one in Summerville lost their lives due to the earthquake, but it did scare everyone. The 1886 earthquake did cause a lot of damage! “The Old White Meeting House” was used on special occasions until the devastating earthquake destroyed it. Most chimneys were not left standing. All of this damage from an earthquake that lasted less than one minute!
Summerville had about 200 people living here, in 1886. The earthquake was the most damaging earthquake to occur in the southern United States. Property damage was estimated at $5-$6 million dollars. Structural damage was reported in central Alabama, Central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia and Western West Virginia. The shaking was felt as far away as Cuba and New York City.
Here in Summerville at the earthquakes epicenter, there were several miles of severely damaged railroad tracks and formations like S shaped curves. It has been interpreted through the nature of the damage, that the predominant motion of the earthquake was vertical. The formation of sand crater lets, and the ejection of sand was widespread in the Summerville area. A series of wide craters opened parallel to the Ashley River and several large trees were uprooted when the bank slid into the river. It’s interesting to note that surface vaulting was not observed.
The people that went through 1886 earthquake didn’t know what was happening. There was fear and panic. Many of the residents slept in their yards that night for fear that if they slept in the house they would be killed by falling debris. The next morning the sun came up showing the destruction of the night before in the “1886 Earthquake.”

Mark D. Woodard
Summerville Tours
(843) 817-8618

Research sources:

  • Hill, Barbara Lynch. ¬†Summerville, SC 1847-1997 Our History. Wentworth Printing, West Columbia, SC (1998)
  • McIntosh, Beth. Beth’s Pineland Village. The R.L. Bryan Company, Columbia, SC (1988)
  • Kwist, Margaret and others. Porch Rocker Recollections of Summerville, South Carolina. Linwood Press, Inc. Summerville, SC (1980)
  • Stover and Coffman. Sesmicity of United States 1568-1989. US Geological Survey Professional Paper.