September 21, 2016
Sometime in the late 1970s (I didn’t record the date) I was
standing in my parents’ living room on the corner of Lawton
and Howard Street when I felt a muffled, low rumble ripple across the
floor. It didn’t last long…just a few
could feel the vibration in my legs. I had never experienced anything
like it before, but instinctively knew this was how an earthquake
On August 23, 2011, at 1:51 pm, a rare earthquake measuring 5.8 on the
Richter Scale, and centered at Mineral, Virginia, shook several states
on the eastern seaboard, including North Carolina. Ocracoke residents
felt the shock waves.
In June of 2013 earthquake scientists registered a small earthquake in
rural eastern North Carolina. At a magnitude of only 2.1 (smaller than
can be felt), the mini-quake raised no alarms.
One year later, in February, 2014, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake struck
about 60 miles southwest of Columbia, S.C. It was felt on the Outer
Few people think of earthquakes when the Outer Banks comes to mind, and
for good reason. Earthquakes in North Carolina are rare, and seldom
cause much damage. However, they do occur. The earliest North Carolina
earthquake on record occurred on March 8, 1735, near Bath. On December
16, 1811, a powerful 7.5 earthquake centered in the Mississippi River
valley was felt widely over the entire eastern United States, including
coastal North Carolina.
Not long ago I was reading Portsmouth, the Way it Was, by Ellen Fulcher
Cloud. The author includes a 1969 interview with Mattie Gilgo
(1885-1976). At one point in the interview, Miss Gilgo mentions an
earthquake that was felt on Portsmouth.
“I heard mama say they were sitting to the supper
Miss Gilgo begins. “That earthquake destroyed Portsmouth. You
talk about rocking a island. That was the worst. Houses were destroyed.
That done worse than a storm.”
That’s all she said about the earthquake, but Ellen Cloud,
of several books about Ocracoke and Portsmouth, was intrigued because
she had never heard about it.
Ellen Cloud soon discovered information about the August 31, 1886
earthquake that shook Charleston, South Carolina. This
had a magnitude of 7.3 and was the most damaging earthquake ever to
strike the southeastern United States. The Charleston earthquake
damaged or destroyed most of the buildings in the city (it caused more
than $5 million in damage), injured many people, and left 60 people
dead. Shock waves were felt as far away as Massachusetts, Wisconsin,
The 1886 earthquake caused more destruction in North Carolina than any
other seismic activity in recorded history. Broken chimneys, cracked
plaster, and damaged walls were reported from the Outer Banks to the
In his book, America's Wetland: An Environmental and Cultural History
of Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, Roy T. Sawyer mentions damage
from the 1886 earthquake in the Albemarle region, including Cape
Hatteras, Portsmouth Island, and Nags Head (where “many
were down”). About the southern part of Hyde County, at
Creek and Oyster Creek, he reports that the ground sank “12
inches overnight” and that witnesses described hearing a loud
“rumbling noise.” Surely this was the earthquake
by Mattie Gilgo.
The 1886 Annual Report of the Light-House Board of the United States to
the Secretary of the Treasury includes an official report about the
earthquake and its effect at Cape Hatteras:
"The keeper reports
that he felt an
earthquake shock on August 31, at 9.50 p.m., local time. The shock
lasted from ten to fifteen seconds. It was accompanied by a rumbling
noise. There were four shocks. They were severe enough to slightly
crack the storm panes in the lantern tower. The second shock occurred
at 10 o’clock, lasted about six seconds and was very light.
third shock occurred at 10,07, lasted about ten seconds, and was
moderate. The fourth shock occurred at 10.29, lasted about six seconds,
and was very light. Its force was sufficient to set suspended objects
swinging and to overthrow light objects. He further states that it
sounded like a rumbling noise coming up the tower.
“Then the tower
would tremble and sway
backward and forward like a tree shaken by the wind. The shock was so
strong that we could not keep our backs against the parapet wall. It
would throw us right from it. The swinging was form northeast to
On September 3 another slight
shock was felt
at 11.05 p.m., which lasted about three seconds.
No doubt the 1886 earthquake impacted Ocracoke, although no record of
its effects on the vilage survive.