August 31, 1886 was the day of the terrible earthquake that shook Charleston, South Carolina. According to eyewitnesses, “four severe shocks” occurred before midnight followed by three early the next morning At least twenty-seven people died immediately, and just under one hundred died through injuries connected to the earthquake. [i]
|Charleston after the earthquake|
The magnitude of the earthquake was so great that aftershocks were felt in Savannah. The ground trembled and people had to hang on to something to remain upright. “One woman died of fright,” and others were injured as they jumped out of second story windows in their panic. Across the city, glass shattered, 240 chimneys tumbled, and ten buildings were shaken so badly they had to be razed. At Tybee Island, the six-foot-thick wall of the lighthouse cracked.[ii] Willie Gordon harrumphed to his daughter Juliette, “I am glad your mother and all of you are absent as this sort of thing is too sensational to be agreeable….”[iii]
Veteran Willie Gordon was a stoic, but even he could not put all the “sensationalism” behind him because a full two days later the aftershocks had not stopped. “There have been two or three perceptible shocks every night since the great shock of Tuesday night, besides numerous tremors or noiseless vibrations of the earth which last only a few seconds,” he wrote.
He described anxious Savannahians who fled their homes at the slightest hint of a tremor, some of whom spent the entire night out of doors. “Walking on the streets at night is like going through a bivouac and in the large majority of houses the inhabitants have placed mattresses in the basement rooms or in the entries and slept with front doors wide open, ready to dash into the street at the first alarm.”[iv]
Nellie Gordon, Juliette’s mother, had returned to Savannah in time for the last of the aftershocks. She, too, was imperturbable—even though she was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by “a rumbling like a heavy train of cars” that shook the bed, rattled the windows, and jangled bells in the basement. That tremor “cracked” the ceilings in Juliette’s dressing room and the front parlor.[v]
Those Gordons were made of stern stuff.
[i] Carl McKinley, A Descriptive Narrative of the Earthquake of August 31st 1886 (Charlestson, SC: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell Co, 1887), 13.