Tales of Tuscaloosa: A Case of the “Monkeys” (August 31, 1886)

A collapsed business in Charleston, South Carolina. A collapsed business in Charleston, South Carolina. US Geological Survey Photographic Collection

It was Tuesday evening, and the Tuscaloosa Citizens Cornet Band was playing, when suddenly their practice room filled with fluttering birds. The “affrighted” creatures had been shaken from their roosts in trees outside an open window. All over town people fled outside, fearing their houses would fall. 

During the next days, Tuscaloosans would learn more details of an earthquake whose epicenter was near Charleston, South Carolina. The quake killed scores. It was felt as far away as Boston, Bermuda, Cuba, Chicago, and, in particular, central Alabama. The United States Geological Survey considers it to be the most powerful quake ever recorded in the Southeast, rating it at 7.3 on the Richter Scale. 

Before the sobering news of death and destruction reached Tuscaloosa, amusing tales quickly circulated about initial reactions to the shaking earth. The Tuskaloosa Gazette noted that in addition to the flapping flock:

One or two business young men thought they had a case of the “monkeys,” “snakes,” “rats,” or anything you may choose to call ‘em. No names given this time, but lookout for the next earthquake boys.

A certain lady we could mention, thinking the house was being burglarized, proceeded to practice target shooting at the door knob.

Dan Farmer took out his shotgun and pulled down on the plagued thing, or there is no telling how much damage would have been done. Dan says it takes a fine marksman to hit an earthquake. He is going to have it fried for breakfast next Sunday!

A facetious gentleman explains the phenomenon by saying it was “only the bottom falling out of Birmingham real estate.”

Charleston suffered massive destruction. Local damage was minor in comparison, and included fallen plaster, cracked walls, collapsed chimneys, and frayed nerves. However, the damage in Tuscaloosa and central Alabama was more noticeable than in some other areas a similar distance from the epicenter.

In the Charleston area, there were reports of unusual occurrences, such as sand blows and sinkholes. Locally, Mr. Robert Nelson reported an unusual sight that could have been attributed to the quake. Several miles downstream of the city, on the Black Warrior River, a large stream of cold spring water, several inches in diameter, was seen gushing from the riverbank at a point that was dry before the shaking.

According to contemporary reports, the earthquake struck Charleston at about 9:50 p.m. and Tuscaloosa at 9:30 p.m. Since time zones were not then in use, these were probably local times that were then based local noon – when the sun was directly overhead. Adjustment of Charleston time to Tuscaloosa time indicates the shock waves took about 10 minutes to cover the 440-mile straight-line distance. This would be equivalent to a speed of about 2600 miles per hour, or 1.2 kilometers per second, and it appears to be within the accepted range of earthquake shock wave velocities. 

A structural bolt on Clark Hall erected on the University of Alabama campus in 1884. These bolts were installed in the 1940s to stiffen the building and pull the walls into a vertical position in a similar manner to work pioneered in Charleston after the 1886 earthquake. Photo by the author.

In general, earthquakes are a rare phenomenon for much of Alabama. But the quake of August 31, 1886, demonstrated that many structures, even masonry ones, may need additional reinforcement – even in areas like Tuscaloosa, that were previously thought to be safe.  

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.



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