Readers of history have most likely come across reports of the extreme earthquake occurring in 1886. Because the epicenter of the earthquake was in South Carolina, it has come to be called the “Charleston Earthquake.” The earthquake was a magnitude 6.9 to 7.3 and the shock was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. Charleston was devastated — most of its buildings either fell down or were so badly damaged that they had to be torn down and rebuilt. And though many people experienced the quake, there are relatively few first-hand accounts of it that survive, particularly by those near the epicenter.
Though unsigned, I feel certain this letter was written in 1886 by Ann Smith Porcher (1841-1919) — a music teacher residing with her parents. They were Caroline (Parker) Porcher (1824-1888) — also a music teacher and an organist at the Unitarian Church in Charleston — and Frederick Adolphus Porcher (1809-1888) — a professor of Belles Lettres and History at Charleston College. Their home was just one block from the South Battery of Charleston Harbor. Ann’s sister, Mary Rutledge Porcher (1851-1892), also appears to have been living with them at the time.
Ann wrote the letter to her sister Clelia L. Porcher (1847-1924), a teacher and instructress in drawing who was apparently visiting — or boarding — in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with the Arthur Barnwell (1845-1918) family. Arthur was a native of Charleston, the son of Edward Barnwell (1813-1885) and Margaret Heyward Manigault (1818-1864). Arthur was a cotton merchant with his father on East Bay Street in Charleston until sometime after the 1880 U. S. Census was taken. The family’s wealth was greatly diminished by the Civil War; the Barnwell family plantation house “Prospect Hill” was burned by Union troops in February 1865.
In Ann’s letter to her sister, she describes the sudden horror the family experienced as the quake struck at approximately 9:50 p.m. on 31 August. The Porcher home was located at 3 Smith Lane. Next door at 4 Smith Lane lived Henry T. Welch and his widowed mother, Eliza. Smith Lane (now called East Lamboll) was a short stretch of road — an alley really — between King and Market Streets lined with narrow dwellings that Charlestonians like to call a “half house” — meaning the narrow side fronted the street and the longer side ran perpendicular to the street, usually with an attached covered piazza and a false front door. There are many examples of these homes still in existence in Charleston.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published with express consent.]
Addressed to Mr. Arthur Barnwell for Miss Porcher, Flat Rock, North Carolina
Charleston [South Carolina]
September 2nd 1886
My Dear Dely
Your letter ‘just arrived’ has found us in much discomfort, but I am thankful to say no accident to lives. On Tuesday afternoon the heat was so intense that after my music lesson, I persuaded Mary to accompany me in a car drive. I really feared some kind of storm — it was so dreadfully still and close. We were about shutting up for the night when I felt the whole house shudder. I ran out in the piazza and found your Father swaying backwards and forwards and clinging to the brick pillar whilst the hissing, rumbling, rattling, screeching, swaying, and apparently rolling of a thousand cars, made more appalling by the thick cloud of dust which almost deprived one of either breathing or seeing, made night hideous, and was the most fearful experience that could have been imagined.
I caught hold of your Father but was thankful when Isaac rushed up and dragged him into the yard against Mr. Rian’s house. Mary then appeared calling out that the chimney might fall and Isaac hastened into the street just in time as there are none, or perhaps only a few in the whole city left standing. I then hurried back into the house, found that the tank had been so much tilted that the water was pouring down the stairs and that the passage lamp was breaking (the chimney of it) from the drops of water, seized it, and put it out of harms way, whilst Mary and Isaac were trying to lessen the water in the tank. Then your Father gave us a fright for when we hastened to where he was stationed (the shock being over for the time), he could not be found. We then searched yards and house without success but at last discovered him by a crowd of negroes who were crying and praying for mercy.
Mr. Holmes had just left left our house with Daisy and caught hold of Mr. Welch’s fence whilst his daughter clung to him. Had he gone a few feet further they might have been killed as the brick kitchen attached to the corner shop fell, filling up the whole street. Two persons were very much injured. Our neighbors and most of the family remained in the street until about 3 or four o’clock. Slight shocks occurring during the whole time and keeping everyone in a state of intense excitement. Mary and Clelia had returned to the library and tried to lie down so that when we came in, shawls and blankets were spread on the floor whilst Baly and Mr. Porcher took the sofa and lounge. We adopted the same course last night, having had shocks all day and several during the night. In all probability we will do the same again although we have only one so far today.
Most of the rooms will have to be re-plastered. The chimneys are gone and many fears that the cracks extend through the entire chimney and that we may have to build them over again. The south wall of the school is so far gone that it is very dangerous and has to be re-built. The yard has two cracks in it through which boiled up water and sand or sulphur. A very large one on the Battery and several up town and at the phosphate works. A person who has lived where earthquakes are common says that they permit the gas to escape and that we may be exempt from any more severe shocks. I have not slept or lain down for two nights so that I am now sleeping between my sentences.
[Docketed in a different hand by a member of the Barnwell family in Flat Rock]
Dear Anne, we took the liberty of reading this letter. Clelia went down on Saturday as she was so miserable. No assurances could quell her fears for the future path of our doomed city. We continue to feel almost daily slight shakes or vibrations. Yours affectionately, — S. E. B.
This letter only arrived today postmarked 3rd.
My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.