When Davidson Trembled
In a column printed in The Progressive Farmer (Winston, N.C.) on November 24, 1886, Georgia newspaperman and humorist, Bill Arp, recounted an experience he had while visiting Davidson College in the middle of October. “While I was upstairs in a brick house the earthquake came along again and shook us up lively. It was the severest and lasted the longest of any that I have felt, and I did not like it at all. A little while before I had been shown where the great high columns that supported the gable projection of one of the college buildings [probably the original Chambers Building] had been displaced at their tops several inches. The quake of August 31st did that.”
The quake he’s referring to is the destructive earthquake that struck Charleston, South Carolina, on August 31, 1891, a quake that was felt from Cuba to New York and Bermuda to the Mississippi River. Indeed, it is the most serious quake to affect North Carolina in modern times. According to the September 3 Charlotte Democrat, Charlotte did not remain unscathed: “The whole city was thrown into great commotion by violent Earthquake shocks.” There were reportedly four shocks in all, and “all frame buildings shook terribly, and brick buildings were jostled to an alarming extent. Parts of chimneys were thrown down, glass and crockery were broken, and also glass in windows.” According to the report, the effects were most severe in the northern part of the city.
Aftershocks from the quake continued to be felt for months. By some estimates, there were 522 aftershocks between 1886 and 1889. According to the October 27 issue of the Progressive Farmer, on October 23 “A sharp shock was felt at Charlotte at 5:28 o’clock in the morning and two at 2:45 in the afternoon,” but no serious damage was done. Winston-Salem’s Weekly Sentinel reported that an aftershock on November 5 “was felt with more or less severity from Washington, D.C., to Macon, Ga.”
The Charleston earthquake was one of only 22 quakes to cause damage in North Carolina between 1735 and 2009. Of these, only seven actually occurred in the state itself, and only four caused structural damage. Besides the Charleston quake, only the 1861 earthquake in Wilkesboro, the 1916 tremblor in Asheville, and a 1926 quake in Mitchell County caused noticeable damage.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.