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Savannah Business Then & Now: The 125th Anniversary of Tybee Earthquake

Category: Historic Businesses "Then & Now"

By Thomas Clark
SBJ Special Contributor

Aug. 29, 2011 –It was a quiet evening, the last day of August 1886, expected to pass quietly for Tybee Island residents and visitors. A few days earlier, a hurricane had tracked to the east sparing the island, Georgia and South Carolina.

The storm left behind a steamy air mass but no one was complaining. The night promised to be tranquil with no hint of storms in either the western or southern skies.

One hundred miles away in Charleston, some folks were returning from church services that evening. They described the nine o’clock hour as having such “a profound stillness in the air that it provoked general remark.” 

The date was Aug. 31, 1886 and that stillness would be shattered forever, just moments later.

Terror from below
At approximately 9:25 p.m., Savannah and Tybee Island experienced a low rumble…then a major tremor.

“At Tybee the shock was more severely felt than in the city (Savannah). The people on the island rushed from their houses to the beach. The oscillation lasted several minutes. Lantern lenses in the lighthouse was broken and the machinery of lamps was disarranged…The water was agitated and the waves rose high on the beach. Houses swayed to and fro as if they would fall to pieces,” according to a story published by the Daily Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine, on Sept. 2, 1886

“(In Savannah) three distinct shocks have been felt since midnight…People are still greatly excited, and sitting out in the streets and squares, or crowding around the telegraph and newspaper offices.  At Tybee Island…. the lenses in the lighthouse were destroyed. The people on the island telephone to the city that they are in a state of terror. There is no communicating with the mainland until daylight and all the inhabitants are assembled on the high land. Their chief cause of fear is from a tidal wave, the island been swept away in 1881”.  Galveston Daily News, Sept. 1, 1886

“Reports from Tybee Island announce the breaking of the lens in the lighthouse, the twisting of the iron bolts and brass wires, extinguishing of the lights and damage to the structure proper…. The summer colony on the island spent the night huddled…. in abject terror and in momentary expectation of being swallowed by a tidal wave…Three shocks subsequent to the first, came at irregular intervals of an hour or so apart. These served to keep the terror of the people at the highest pitch…(many) wandering the streets during the night beseeching the Almighty to have mercy on them.”   Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 2, 1886

According to the U.S. Geological Service, “the Tybee Island lighthouse cracked near the middle where the walls were six feet and the one-ton lens moved an inch and a half to the northeast.”

Remarkably, other than the lighthouse, no other major damage was experienced on the island. In Savannah many had difficulty remaining standing during the quake. It was also reported that one woman “died of fright as the shaking cracked walls, felled chimneys, and broke windows.” Panic at a revival service left two injured and two more were injured leaping from upper story windows. Falling bricks injured several more. Ten buildings in Savannah were damaged beyond repair, including some local businesses, and at least 240 chimneys were damaged.

The quake centered in South Carolina and is known today as the “1886 Charleston earthquake.”  Between 60 and 105 were killed there.  At its center it measured between magnitude 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter scale, and damaged 2,000 of Charleston’s buildings costing $6-8 million dollars in property damage.  Hardly a structure went undamaged; by some estimates seven of every eight were casualties – many sustaining significant damage.

The 1886 earthquake is one of the most powerful quakes to have ever occurred in the southeastern United States, with its effects felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and New Orleans.  Cuba and Bermuda also felt its reach.

Present Day Reminders
Interestingly, prior to 1886, Charleston had not experienced any noteworthy earthquake activity. However this dormancy may have contributed to the severity of the 1886 tremor. The earth may have been holding back this terrific pressure perhaps for eons. And Savannah had a remarkably low level of damage.

Today the region lies in one of the most seismically active spots along the East Coast. And although earthquakes are rare in Georgia they do occur and are listed in emergency preparedness guides for the state. The City of Tybee lists the threat under Tsunami:

The history and threats of Georgia earthquakes can be found in this 1999 assessment prepared by Georgia Tech:

Remarkably, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) continues to measure micro-earthquake activity nearby even today which they believe may be a continuation of the 1886-aftershock series.

Ominously, 125 years later the earth still sends reminders to us not to forget that last day of August 1886 when light was extinguished and terror ruled the night.

Published by Savannah Business Journal.®All Copyrights Reserved ©2011.®

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