Sometime in the late 1970s (I didn’t record the date) I was standing in my parents’ living room on the corner of Lawton Lane and Howard Street when I felt a muffled, low rumble ripple across the floor. It didn’t last long…just a few seconds…but I could feel the vibration in my legs. I had never experienced anything like it before, but instinctively knew this was how an earthquake should feel.
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 Banks.
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 table,” 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, author 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 earthquake 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, and Bermuda.
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 mountains.
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 houses were down”). About the southern part of Hyde County, at Waupopin Creek and Oyster Creek, he reports that the ground sank “12 to 18 inches overnight” and that witnesses described hearing a loud “rumbling noise.” Surely this was the earthquake reported 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. The 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 southwest.”
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.