Today, the South Carolina State Quarter Coin remembers the terror and destruction of the 1886 earthquake that struck Charleston on the evening of August 31.
In the book The Charleston Earthquake, August 31, 1886, Carlyle McKinley began the tale of his recollections:
When the bells of St. Michael’s Church, in Charleston, chimed the third quarter after nine o’clock on the evening of Tuesday, August 31st, 1886, their familiar tones spoke peace and peace alone, to the many happy homes on every side within whose sheltering walls the people of a fair and prosperous city had gathered to rest, before taking up the burdens of another busy day.
There was no whispered warning in the well known sounds, or in any subdued voice of the night, to hint of the fearful calamity so near at hand.
Not the unconscious bells themselves were less suspicious of coming ill than were they whom their sweetly solemn notes summoned, as at other times, to seek forgetfulness in sleep.
The streets of the city were silent and nearly deserted. Overhead, the stars twinkled with unwonted brilliancy in a moonless, unclouded sky. The waters of the wide harbor were unruffled by even a passing breeze.
Around the horizon the dark woodlands hung like purple curtains shutting out the world beyond, as though nature itself guarded the ancient city hidden within the charmed circle.
Earth and sea alike seemed wrapped in a spell of hushed and profound repose, that reflected as in a mirror the quiet of the blue eternal heavens bending over all.
It was upon such a scene of calm and silence that the shock of the great earthquake fell, with the suddenness of a thunderbolt launched from the starlit skies; with the might of ten thousand thunderbolts falling together ; with a force so far surpassing all other forces known to men, that no similitude can truly be found for it.
The firm foundation upon which every home had been built in unquestioning faith in its stability for all time, was giving way; the barriers of the great deep were breaking up. To the ignorant mind, it seemed, in truth, that God had laid his hand in anger upon His creation.
The great and the wise, knowing little more, fearing little less than the humblest of their wretched fellow creatures, bowed themselves in awe as before the face of the Destroying Angel.
For a few moments all the inhabitants of the city stood together in the presence of death, in its most terrible form, and perhaps scarcely one doubted that all would be swallowed together and at once, in one wide yawning grave.
The picture is not overdrawn, since it cannot be over drawn. The heart and the hand shrink back from the task of trying to depict faithfully, in any terms, the scenes and emotions of that dreadful hour.
No narrative of the great earthquake, however, will present a true account of its character and effects, that fails to give sharp prominence to the element of fearful surprise involved in its sudden, unlooked-for coming, and to the overmastering dread which its manifestations inspired in every breast.
The transition from a long established condition of safety and peacefulness, to one of profound and general danger and terror, was absolute and instantaneous.
Think of it; dwell upon every detail of attempted description as we may; the imagination still comes far short of the reality.
Within seven minutes after the last stroke of the chime, and while its echoes seemed yet to linger in listening ears, Charleston was in ruins. And the wreck had been accomplished in one and the last minute of the seven.
Millions of dollars worth of property, the accumulation of nearly two centuries, had been destroyed in the time a child would take to crush a frail toy.
Every home in the city had been broken or shattered — and beneath the ruins lay the lifeless or bruised and bleeding bodies of men, women and children, who had been stricken down in the midst of such security as may be felt by him who reads these lines at any remote distance of time or space.
The cyclone of the year before was truly terrifying in its most furious stages, but was several hours in reaching those stages. When the storm had passed away, it was found that no one had been killed in the city.
Many houses were damaged, indeed, but the damage, was nearly confined to their roofs, and very many buildings were unscathed. The loss of property caused by the storm, slew and wounded its victims by the score. When the cyclone raged at its worst, the affrighted citizens found shelter within their dwellings.
In the shock of the earthquake the first and strongest, the irresistible impulse was to flee without the threatening walls— to dare the peril in the street in the hope of escaping the certain fate that menaced everyone who tarried for an instant under their shadow.
After the storm the sunshine brought light and rest and gladness in its train. The earthquake was followed by hours of darkness, relieved only by the glare of burning ruins.
The morning sun lit up a scene of devastation such as had never before greeted the eyes of the weary watchers, revealing to them the extent of the danger through which they had passed, and to which they were momentarily exposed anew. It was a fearful ordeal throughout, even for the strongest and bravest, and the tender and the timid were exposed to its full fury.
There is no possibility of exaggerating its horrors to anyone who recalls the occurrences of the night with even a gleam of recollection of their dread import, and of the thoughts and emotions that they inspired.
The South Carolina State Quarter Coin shows against a view of St. Michael’s church, circa 1861.