Clocks stopped. Windows rattled. Residents feared the worst.

Two families rushed out of their homes in alarm while others, stirred by the rude awakening, thought burglars had broken in.

The time was about 9:50 p.m. The date: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1886.

Mount Holly Springs had just experienced the shock of an earthquake centered 600 miles away in what was left of Charleston, SC.

A second tremor rolled through Holly about 15 minutes later causing The Daily Sentinel on Sept. 2 to speculate on the reason why the borough was so vulnerable.

“One of the facts in the occurrence is that those who lived closest to the mountain felt it the severest,” the newspaper reported. Eyewitness accounts from Mt. Alto supported the conclusion that earthquake effects “followed the mountain range, to some extent.”

A wire service story on the disaster reported how people in Mt. Alto, Waynesboro and Fayetteville saw beds shaking, chairs rocking and “a general moving of portable articles.” “Doors were opened and trees were stripped of their fruit in some places.”

The American Volunteer, a Carlisle newspaper, reported how the tremor was “quite perceptible” in Shippensburg and “accompanied by a rumbling sound. But further down the [Cumberland] valley it was still more apparent.”

Like The Sentinel, The Volunteer saw a tie-in with local topography. “It will be noticed in this locality the places affected are those lying near the South Mountain. However, this is coming dangerously near, and it is not at all pleasant to be convinced that this beautiful valley is not free from earthquakes.”

‘Slightly visited by shock’

Cross-town rival The Carlisle Herald reported how the shock of the Charleston quake was felt across much of the U.S. from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Mississippi River.

“There are some people who say the effects of the earthquake were felt in Carlisle,” The Herald reported. “But there are very few who noticed anything unusual.”

Those who did only attributed it to the earthquake after news of the disaster filtered out. The Herald said only about a dozen or so Carlisle area residents felt a vibration or a jarring sensation.

“On the whole we may say that Carlisle was only slightly, if at all; visited by the shock,” The Herald story reads. Part-news part-commentary the words painted a bleak picture of the dread felt by survivors in Charleston:

“Reports from that place indicate a fearful state of affairs…It is bad enough to have one shock of an earthquake that drives people into the streets but to have a series of them, adding to the terror and consternation during the entire night, is something awful to contemplate…The number of those who were killed outright can be ascertained, but who can tell how many unfortunate creatures will die from fright and exposure.

“No other calamity can equal an earthquake,” The Herald added. “It gives no notice. There is no means of providing against it. No place to flee from it and no time to do even if there was. It is one of the most appalling catastrophes known to mankind.”

Need for Foundation

For one Carlisle family, the disaster hit close to home in a manner of speaking. Navy Commander B.P. Lamberton was visiting his mother on Pomfret Street at the time of the tremor.

Lamberton was in charge of all the lighthouses of a Navy district extending from Cape Fear, NC to the southern coast of Florida with its headquarters in Charleston. While “he escaped the earthquake by being on the rocky foundation of Carlisle,” The Herald reported. “His house in Charleston was wrecked.”

A Sentinel commentator saw the disaster as a wake-up call to Americans on the need for solid architecture:

“Our Atlantic seaboard enjoys no immunity from the destructive convulsions of the earth’s crust. A due recognition of the danger…we [have] in common with all the dwellers of the earth’s surface…should lead to the enforcement of precautions recommended by experience in the location and construction of buildings. It is but too obvious that had Charleston contained many tenement houses of the flimsy character familiar to New York the loss of life would have been frightful.”

A wire service story from Sept. 1 described Charleston as wrecked with streets choked with piles of fallen bricks and tangled telegraph and telephone wires. Over 60 people were killed or wounded mostly black and there were fires reported all over the city. The business district was destroyed and hundreds of city-dwellers were homeless.

Answering the Call

As with any disaster of far-reaching effect, calls went out to help the victims. The Sentinel reported on Sept. 2 how the Western Union Telegraph company promised to forward, at no cost, any donations sent as earthquake relief. The newspaper urged the public to support this initiative:

“Steps should be taken by every hamlet, town and city to at once render adequate relief…They should receive from the whole people not only expressions of sympathy, but substantial assistance.”

Local support extended beyond wiring donations. For days on end, local newspapers publicized a benefit concert that was held at The Sentinel building which housed an opera house. That building was located behind the Old Courthouse on the Square.

“The participants will include some of the best musical talent the town affords,” one story reads. “The committee on sale of tickets has met with great success, and it looks as though a large audience and a full purse would be the result.”

“We have wealth and plenty, while others are suffering,” another story reads. “It is but right to give to those who have lost their all and who are needy. There are pressing needs among the poor people of Charleston and the cry of distress should not go unheeded.”

Email Joseph Cress at