The Great Seaboard Earthquake

from a contemporary newspaper


c. 2005


John W. Cowart

Most Jacksonville citizens did not realize what was happening to them.

Some thought the rolling roaring noise signaled an invasion; there had been talk of imminent war with Mexico. Other people thought they were caught in a tornado. Still others believed that a building had collapsed or a munitions ship had exploded in the river.

"There has never been a day probably in the history of Florida when so large a portion of the people were so intently eager for news as yesterday," said the Florida Times-Union  in its September 1, 1886 edition.

The night before, Jacksonville and other parts of Florida had been hit by the first and most severe of what would be eight earthquakes in ten days.

The August 31, 1886, quake, called the "Great Seaboard Earthquake", was the worst ever recorded in the United States up to that time.

A shift in the continental shelf was felt from Key West to New York and as far west as St. Louis. It began at 8:52 p.m. and lasted 11 minutes.

"Trees were torn up by the roots, chicken coops blown down and outhouses blown over and a number of other calamities, more or less destructive, are being reported”, the Times-Union said the next morning.

Charles Marvin, owner of a shoe store on Bay Street, Jacksonville's main thoroughfare in the 1880s, said the shoes on display in his window, "danced around as if they enclosed the dainty feet of a score of waltzers".

Suspecting perhaps that bad liquor had gotten the better of them -- but still clutching their glasses -- drinkers at the Growler's Retreat staggered onto Bay Street. At the same time, people attending a gospel meeting at the Young Men's Christian Association also rushed into the street. The two groups mingled in confused fellowship with everyone wondering what had happened.

Many in Jacksonville had gone to bed but the shock tumbled them out.

"A well-known Bay Street merchant made his appearance on the sidewalk in his wife's Mother Hubbard wrapper. He told his friends that he didn't care how much they laughed -- it saved him," the newspaper reporter said.

One English immigrant dashed into the street waving a pistol: "To get a crack at the bloody thieves, you know."

Dr. J.M. Fairley reported a tidal wave at Mayport:

"There was brief calm on the river then a sudden wave dashed over the beach and a rumbling noise was heard," he said. "The earth and the houses shook like leaves on a tree."

Sailors from ships tied up at the wharves which lined Bay Street dashed ashore thinking that their boats had been rammed. They met a surge of townsmen running to the docks thinking a warehouse had collapsed.

"The excitement was intense and there was many a pale face among those who felt the shock," the newspaper said.

Vibration started church bells ringing, alarming people even more. Empty rocking chairs in homes began mysteriously rocking by themselves.

Before he ran into the street, Thomas E. Kernan, who worked at a Jacksonville pharmacy, said he felt a strong electric shock and saw the plaster on the walls splinter in cracks patterned like lightening.

In a Lawtey church service -- "a protracted meeting" -- the minister had chosen the right topic: "The Terrors of Hell on a Naked Conscience".

Reports of the service said, "The church building was very rickety. When the rafters began to shake there was some panic but the preacher kept right on preaching -- and no one left".

The world tottered. Houses tipped on their foundations. Dishes and bottles fell from tables and shattered. Squawking chickens fluttered from their roosts. In Orange Park, the  safe in George W. Wilson's  library popped open and the steel door swung back and forth on its hinges.

Various meteorological phenomena accompanied the quake. Barometer readings fluctuated. There was an unusual sunset that evening. Fernandina residents reported a large meteor in the southwest sky.

A sound, which one observer described by saying, "The noise was like a loaded wagon on a hard road," accompanied the earthquake.

Although most of the Eastern United States felt the quake, the worst damage occurred in Charleston, S.C., where falling buildings killed more than 50 people and destroyed $8 million worth of property, "Casting into the streets and squares the entire population of the city, their homes in ruins and their industry destroyed.".

The day after the quake, Jacksonville Mayor Patrick McQuade called for aid to the Charleston earthquake victims. "Gratitude to a Merciful Providence, who spared us a similar affliction, should urge us to give liberally and willingly of what we have to aid and comfort our suffering brethren... This is no time for words. Gratitude to God for being spared, and a deep sympathy for the unfortunate citizens of Charleston will induce us to send such relief as we are able," he said.

Within a few days, Jacksonville raised $3,400 for Charleston's relief and the Times-Union boasted, "In proportion to her population and wealth, Jacksonville has contributed more liberally for the benefit of the Charleston sufferers than any other city in the country."

In the days following, as new quakes and aftershocks disturbed Jacksonville, the  citizens, knowing  Charleston's fate, lived in anxiety. Many people camped in downtown streets saying they would rather "sit up all night in the open than go to bed with an earthquake."

However, not everyone worried about earthquakes. One old lady insisted that there was no earthquake but that a robber was under her bed.

Some people did not even know there had been an earthquake!

"In Orlando," the Times-Union reported, "There were several young gentlemen visiting young ladies at a certain house and none of the party knew of the disturbance until told of it by others the next morning, but it is probable that no other occupation than courting would have so engrossed their attention as to make them oblivious to so pronounced a seismic shock."


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