The ground beneath us in East Central Georgia doesn't shake very often. When it does, it is a time to start praying for God's grace. That's exactly what happened on the evening of August 31, 1886, one hundred and twenty five years ago tomorrow night. It was on that night when the most powerful earthquake to ever strike the southeastern United States struck South Carolina, between Charleston and Summerville. The quake, which measured an estimated intensity of seven or higher on the Richter scale, nearly destroyed the ancient port city and its suburban resort neighbor to the west. The quake was so powerful that it was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago and Cuba. And, it shook the ground, buildings and people's souls right here in Dublin.
The massive earthquake didn't come without warning. Just before dawn on Saturday, August 28, an earthquake slightly jarred the city of Augusta, Georgia. Though the rattling was barely perceptible, it was reported that sleeping citizens were suddenly awakened and ran into the streets in fear. The shocks were also felt in Charleston. Around the globe along the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient cities of Rome, Naples, Alexandria, and Athens were jolted by earthquakes.
The Dublin Post reported on Tuesday night at nine o'clock,"houses swayed perceptibly, doors opened, trees trembled and even the Earth was so disturbed that pedestrians found it difficult to travel." The shock was sufficient to evoke a clatter which awoke many who were asleep. Church services were in progress when the quake began. Fearing the "wrath of God" was thrust upon them, the worshipers hastily vacated the sanctuaries. The event was the topic on everyone's mind the following day. Rumors and true accounts of some of the more hilarious details of the commotion, although plentiful, were unfortunately not published in the newspaper. Recent scientific studies have determined that the intensity in Dublin was capable of causing slight damage in ordinary structures, considerable damage in poorly built buildings and moderate damage to chimneys. With the epicenter measuring a 10, the strength felt in Dublin was on a scale of 7.3, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Accounts of the earthquake were reported from all over the region. Though the times vary from as early as 8:52 in Macon to 9:00 in Cochran, where reports of the effects of the phenomenon were similar. Most witnesses stated that the sound which preceded the shaking moved from east to west or northeast to southwest. A second shock occurred less than sixty seconds after the first jolt. In Savannah, which was fairly close to the epicenter of the quake, building damage was moderate. Some loss of life and injuries were reported. It was noted that Lucy Foster was "scared to death." Residents of Tybee Island suffered more damage, including moderate damage to the historic lighthouse on the barrier island. People in Augusta remembered four distinct shocks, followed by more after shocks the following morning.
The quake struck Eastman at 8:55 with "heavy shocks." A couple of a dozen miles to the northwest, bottles were said to have been shaken off the shelves in Hawkinsville during the quake, which lasted 20 to 25 seconds. Cochran residents recounted that the shaking lasted 30 seconds, but consisted of two separate shocks, the second being greater than the first one. In McRae, houses trembled and windows rattled, with little if any damage. Folks ran from their homes in Chauncey during the "violent shake."
Up Highway 441 in Wilkinson County, the members of Red Level Methodist Church, were gathering for an evening to listen to the word of the Lord in what once was billed as one of the county's largest churches. Wilkinson County historian Victor Davidson described the scene best, "The Charleston earthquake of 1886, which frightened nearly everybody to death throughout this county, happened while a protracted meeting was being carried on at this place. The preacher whose name was Green, then living in Irwinton, was a powerful exhorter and as the meeting progressed each day waxed more and more eloquent and this being in the days of shouting Methodists when folks got real religion, the revival was on in earnest. On the night of the earthquake the church was packed to its utmost."
"The preacher had just delivered himself of a fearful sermon dealing with the destruction of the world and judgment day, but somehow or other when he invited sinners to come to the altar few came. Then in the fervor of his emotions the preacher called on the congregation to bow their heads in a word of prayer. He prayed to "God that if it was necessary to bring the sinners to repentance to send an earthquake and convince them of the wrath of an offended God. It is affirmed that he had scarcely uttered these words than a shudder ran through the earth as the first shock of the quake came, the house beginning to crack in every corner and the walls swaying from side to side. The prayer ceased in the middle of a sentence and every one raised his bowed head to see if the wind was blowing."
" Just at that moment came the second shock of the quake and pandemonium broke loose. Amidst the cracking of the walls the neighing of the frightened horses, the shrieks of the women and children, with the freshly reminded visions of the destruction of the earth by fire, and the eternal tortures of the lost before their minds, they made a dash for the doors. It is said that the preacher went out the window and only a blind man remained on the inside. Once on the outside and no more shocks coming, one old man, after looking up and seeing that the stars were in their accustomed places, assured them that it was nothing but an earthquake and that there was no danger. It is said that the crowd then with one accord returned into the church and there was one of the biggest revivals that night any church ever did have."
R.L. Hunter, editor of Milledgeville's Union Recorder, was sitting in his home when he heard a dull roar resembling the sound of a coal locomotive in the distance. Hunter wrote, "The idea at once occurred to us that it was an earthquake and we went to the door in a short time to hear a more distinct roaring sound." After going out into the street, Hunter heard a loud screaming in one direction along with shouts and cries coming from various directions.
After comforting a couple of terrified ladies who lived next door, Hunter returned to his home, where he began to chronicle the five ensuing aftershocks, which came about eight to fifteen minutes apart for an hour. A sixth one trembled after midnight, while still more perceptible rumblings continued throughout the next day until the following Sunday night, five days after the initial shock. Hunter also reported minor damages to older Milledgeville structures, including the old statehouse building.
The Great Earthquake of 1886 stands alone as the strongest in the recorded history of the southeastern United States. It can happen again. Earthquakes, of more minute scales, occur almost daily in the United States. And, they do occur in our area. Just four months ago on May 3, 2011, a magnitude 2.6 earthquake struck near Gibson, Georgia, only some fifty crow-fly miles away from Dublin. And, if that doesn't make you wonder, think about the folks of tiny Mineral, Virginia, who were violently shaken by a 5.9 earthquake last Tuesday and the people in our nation's capital, many miles away, as our capitol building shook right before our very eyes.