Three Hundred Years of Hurricanes
"The Scourging Wrath of God:" Early Hurricanes in Charleston, 1700 -1804
(Charleston Museum Leaflet No. 29, April 1983). written by Jeanne A. Calhoun. Used courtesy of the Charleston Museum.
Throughout its history, Charleston has had a reputation for danger and disease. From the founding of Charleston in 1670 to the beginning of the twentieth century, it was rare for the city to pass a decade without incurring the wrath of a vengeful, or at the least, very displeased providence. One's safety often involved a gamble. Dr. David Ramsay, an amateur historian of the nineteenth century, observed,
"In such a case between the dread of pestilence in the city, of common fever in the country, and of an expected hurricane on the island, the inhabitants...are at the close of every warm season in a painful state of anxiety, not knowing what course to pursue, nor what is best to be done." (David Ramsey, History of South Carolina, Vol. 2, p. 56.)
Situated on a narrow peninsula between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, Charleston could scarcely have been built on a more unpropitious spot. This low-lying, boggy area criss-crossed by creeks and virtually surrounded by the sea was particularly vulnerable to sickness and floods. In a vain attempt to prevent the introduction of disease into Charleston, a pesthouse was built on nearby Sullivan's Island where passengers on in-coming ships were forced to endure a quarantine. The city's residents also spent time on Sullivan's Island in the hope that the sea breezes would prove an effective tonic against Charleston's many diseases. These efforts to guard against infection proved as ineffectual as those taken to protect the city from the sea. The numerous creeks and marshes within Charleston added immeasurably to a storm's danger as they not only prevented drainage but would themselves overdlow. Debris and wreckage, accumulated as the city grew and disasters struck, helped Charleston's transition from marsh to solid ground but was of little aid to the city's early inhabitants. These Charlestonians had to learn not only how to cope but also to endure. Their fortitude and determination has called forth paeans of praise from both historians and grateful descendents. One such observed,
"It would not have been difficult for the citizens, on many occasions to have indulged in civic self-pity and point themselves out as ill-fated and marked out for disaster; but they did this only at the end of their first two decades. After other acts of God, and after that perilous time, too, they simply cleaned up the mess and returned to what was left of their business." (Robert Molloy, Charleston: A Gracious Heritage, 1947, p. 259)
The hurricane which marked Charleston's thirtieth anniversary struck with devastating force. Although the sea "rushed in upon Charlestown with amazing impetuosity," few Charlestonians lost their lives. (Ramsay, Vol. 2, p. 176) Edward Hyme, a newly arrived immigrant, described the catastrophe to his wife in England,
"The enclosed letters should have been on ye Way long since & Captain Bell, but for an unlucky disaster which happened to him just as he was ready to sail; ye Manner thus. On Tuesday September 3 here happened a most terrible Storm of Wind or Hurricane with continual Rain; which has done great Damage to ye Country. Thousands of Trees have been torn up by ye Roots, many Houses blown down & more damnified; much Rice Corn & c spoiled; but ye greatest Mischief fell amongst ye Shipping of which about a Dozen Sail (of all sorts) were riding at Anchor before ye Town, some of which were driven on Shoar & broke all in Pieces, some were carryed a great Way up into ye Two Rivers into Ashley River, in her way breaking down a Pair of Gallows (from which 8 Pirats at once were hanged since my coming here) some were turn'd Bottom upwards & lost. Bell lost all his Masts & was turn'd Bottom upwards; but they have got her to rights again, & I believe she will be ye next Ship for England; Captain Man was riding at Anchor near ye Bar, ready to sail, but he was forced to cut away his Main & Mizen-Masts & much ado to save his Ship so: he will make a miserable Voyage; but it is now almost ready to sail again: but ye greatest and most deplorable loss of all was that to a great Scotch Ship called ye Rising-Sun, which having lost all her Masts in a Huricane in ye Gulf of Florida was riding at Anchor with out our Bar, wth Designe to come in here & refit; but being a Ship of 800 tons & 60 guns she durst not venture in with out lightening to which Purpose One Sloop has already been on board her, but waiting for another, ye Storm rise & she foundred at Anchor, ye Captain (Gibson) & all ye souls on board (being about 100) misearbly perishing...they say she was worth 50000 having a great deal of Gold Silver & rich Goods onboard besides ye Batterie-Guns ye were used in ye Fortifications at Darien, it is a great loss to ye Scots for whose Misfortunes I am very sorry...The only Ship that rid out ye Storm with out Damage was she that brings you these, except some few that were repairing in some Creeks up ye Country where One Ship of about 130 Tons was also lost. Being Spring Tides ye Water very high & raging, so that if ye Wind had not shifted as it did about 2 Hours before high-Water, it is thought the best & greatest part of ye Town would have been washed down into ye River, as One of 2 Houses were & others very near. (Letter from Edward Hyme to his wife. Personal correspondence between Mr. Michael Bull and Mr. Donald Herold, former director of the Charleston Museum. For further information on the Hyme family, see South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 63, pp. 150-157.)
Archibald Tobo, who had been one of the Scottish passengers, was a renowned minister. When the congregation of the White Meeting House had learned he was on board the Rising Sun, they had invited him to preach at their church on Sunday. He, his wife, and the small crew which rowed them over that Sunday were thus spared the terrible fate of their fellow travellers when the Rising Sun, driven from its mooring, was dashed against the sand banks. The congregation of the White Meeting House proved "obedient to the finger of Providence" and, probably amazed at the success of their own intervention, "called" Mr. Stobo to their church where over the years he proved himself a heavenly addition. (Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel, Charleston: The Place and the People, 1906, p. 36.)
The events of the year 1700 proved almost too much for the settlers. Not only had their town been devastated by a ferocious hurricane, but it had also experienced a severe fire, an outbreak of smallpox, and a decimating attack of distemper. Discouragement and despair were practically universal.
"Almost all were lamenting the loss, either of their habitations by the devouring flames, or of friends or relations by the infections and loathsome maladies...Many of the survivors could think of nothing but abandoning a country on which the judgements of heaven seemed to fall so heavy..."
The thoughts of many of the colonists turned to Pennsylvania which, in addition to its reputation as a pleasant and flourishing province, was at least undoubtedly secure from the ravages of the sea. (Alexander Hewatt, Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, Vol. 1, 1962, p. 143.)
In spite of the temptation, the settlers stayed to rebuild Charleston with the fortitude characteristic of Carolina's early colonists. On September 5, 1713, the town was once again inundated by the sea. Records are incomplete, but the death toll from this calamity appears to have been significant. On Sullivan's Island, "The new Look out...of wood, built eight square and eighty feet high, was blown down..." In Charleston's harbor, all but one of the vessels were driven ashore and "all the front wall and mud parapet before Charlestown undermined and washed away, with the platform and gun carriages..." The account concluded, "and other desolations (were) sustained as never before happened to this town..." (Ramsay, Vol. 2, pp. 175n-176n.)
Scarcely more than a decade later, in 1728, a hurricane once more struck the bustling seaport. The waves roared over the town and the surrounding lowlands with disasterous consequences for fortifications, houses, wharves, shipping, and even corn fields. Twenty-three of the twenty-five ships in the harbor were either gravely damaged or dashed to pieces. As the streets filled with boats, boards, and staves, the inhabitants rushed to the relative safety of their roofs and upper stories. (Ramsay, pp. 176-177) There is no known accounts of deaths, but there must have been several people caught in the swirling water. In spite of the terrifying storm, one family at least had cause to rejoice. Tradition in the Laurens' family recounts that at the time their prized orchard of nectarines, apricots, oranges, and other choice fruits was being destroyed, James Laurens, brother to noted Revolutionary figure Henry Laurens, was being born. (Ramsay, p. 176.)
Fourteen years later, the ocean once again claimed Charleston as a victim. Prior to the storm in 1752,
"The town was in a state of fortification. At White Point there was a considerable fort. A very strong brick wall, the curtain line, extended on the east side of East Bay Street...at each extremity of which there was a bastion. The wharves were few in number....With the exception of the low stores on the wharves, the vendue store which was opposite Tradd Street, and the old Guard House, where the Exchange now stands, there was not a house on the east side of East Bay Street, nor was there any land at that time on which one could be erected."
Six hours later, Charleston's appearance had been drastically altered,
"Granvill's bastion, situated at the southeast corner of East Bay street...was much shaken, the upper part of the wall beat in, the platform with the guns upon it floated partly over the wall. The upper part of the cutain line, a solid wall at least four feet thick, was beat in upon the bay..."
The cannons at Craven's bastion and the other batteries around Charleston were dismounted, while at Fort Johnson the barracks were beaten down, guns dismounted, and their carriages carried away. Warehouses, scale-houses, and sheds on the wharves were swept away, while the remains were dashed against nearby dwellings. All but one of the ships in the harbor were driven ashore and most of the smaller vessels soon became one with the debris. Sloops and schooners were thrown against the houses of Bay street and the wharves along East Bay street destroyed. A brigantine beat down several houses and wound up on the east side of Church street. Eight or ten small schooners, owned by Charlestonians, and three or four pilot boats were driven into the woods, corn fields and marshes of surrounding areas (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 19, 1752). A ship carrying a large number of German settlers had anchored in the Ashley River a day or so before the storm. The wind and waves drove her into the marsh near James Island and twenty of the ship's passengers were killed as a result of bruises and other injuries. (Ramsay, Vol. 2, p. 178.)
On Sullivan's Island the pest house, built of wood and housing fifteen people, was washed away. Nine of the fifteen drowned but the rest climbed onto the roof and were safely carried several miles up the Cooper River. Most of James Island was under water and the plantations on Kiawah Island completely covered. (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 19, 1752)
Witnesses recalled the nightmarish day. "A pilot boat drove up on the pavement," (close to a house). "In the parlor of which there was water to the depth of three feet." (Ramsay, Vol. 2, p. 180n.) Another reminisced,
"Colonel Pinckney, who lived in the large white house at the corner of Ellery street and French alley, abandoned it after there were several feet of water in it. He took his family from thence to...(the) corner of Guignard and Charles streets, in a ship's yawl. All South Bay was in ruins, many wooden houses were wrecked to pieces and washed away, and brick houses reduced to a heap of rubbish... A brick house where Mr. Bedon lived, on Church street...was with the out-houses reduced to a heap of rubbish. Mr. Bedon and family unfortunately remained too long in the house, for the whole family, consisting of twelve souls, perished in the water, except himself and a negro wench. He was driven to the upper end of Broad street, and was taken into the window of the house...at the corner of Broad and Mazyck's street... The negro wench was driven on Cummings's point, and saved herself by clinging to a tree. The bodies of Mrs. Bedon, of one of her children, and of a Dutch boy, were found in the parsonage pasture...in St. Philip's street." (Ramsay, p. 181 n.)
While people frantically tried to find boats or swim to safety, a "sloop, loaded for Jamaica, drove through...General Pinckney's stables..." (into a house) "where she was crushed to pieces, and left her mast through the balcony door." (Ramsay, p. 181 n.)
The sea overwhelmed all the southwest part of the town between Tradd and King streets. Meeting street was covered by two feet of water and the tide poured into Church street up to the corner of Tradd street.
"It flowed up the creek to Meeting street, through said street round St. Michael's church, into Broad street, as far down as the corner of Church street...where it met the water which flowed up from East Bay through Queen street into Church street." (Ramsay, p. 182 n.)
The wind also wreaked havoc. Trees, wooden fences, brck walls, and chimneys were blown down; wooden houses of more than one story destroyed. By this time,
"The inhabitants, finding themselves in the midst of a tempestuous sea, the wind still continuing the tide...being expected to flow 'till after one o'clock, and many of the people already up to their necks in water in the houses, began now to think of nothing but a certain death: But, (Here we must record as signal an instance of the immediate interposition of the Divine Providence as ever appeared.) they were soon delivered from their apprehensions; for, about 10 minutes after 11 o'clock, the wind veered... very quick, and then (tho' it continued its violence, and the sea beat and dashed everywhere with amazing impetuosity) the waters fell above 5 feet in the space of 10 minutes...before 3 o'clock the hurricane was over." (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 19, 1752)
As people slowly realized their lives were spared, their thoughts turned to more worldly affairs. The water had swirled through warehouses, stores, and houses, indiscriminately appropriating whatever happened to be there. Ledgers were lost resulting in those such as William Buchannan, who,
"begs and intreats all persons who are anyways indebted to him, for goods sold, or wharfage, as he has been so unfortunate to lose all his books and papers in the late hurricane to send a copy of the several bills of parcels they have from time to time had..." (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 27, 1752)
Mischievous waves had burst open the doors to the Surveyor General's office and filled it with five feet of water. The horrified Surveyor offered a reward of fifty pounds to whoever could locate, in a legible condition, any one of his books of plats, deeds, and accounts. (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 19, 1752)
In the midst of the chaos, there were those who were opportunists or, depending on one's pespective, unscrupulous enough to take advantage of the situation. The Governor, James Glen, and His Majesty's Council,
"having received information that divers wicked and ill-disposed Persons, regardless of the laws of God or of the Province, and divesting themselves of all Humanity for their Fellow-Subjects, take Advantage of the Calamity with which it hath pleased God to afflict the inhabitants, by the late dreadful Hurricane, and go about picking up, purloining and plundering, the Goods, Wares and Merchandize, Household Furniture, Sails, Rigging, Timber, Boards, Shingles, and other Things, carried away by the Violence of the Wind and Waves and left in different Parts of Charles Town, and elsewhere; and His Excellency, and the Council, greatly sympathizing with the unhappy Sufferers, and being desirous to protect all His Majesty's Subjects...are determined to discourage and prevent...the above abominable and Iniquitous Practice..." (South Carolina Gazette, Sept. 19, 1752)
Mary Roubould, in a fit of righteous indignation, advertised,
"WHEREAS some evil-minded Persons have reported that I have since the late hurricanes, in consideration of my late losses and distress, received considerable charitable benefactions. This is to inform the public that the said report is absolutely groundless and without foundation, and that I neither received nor had such benefaction offered me, which I am ready to attest upon oath." (South Carolina Gazette, Oct. 30, 1752)
Alexander Hewatt, an eighteenth century Carolina historian, concluded his account of the 1752 hurricane by observing,
"such is the low situation of Charleston, that it is subject to be destroyed at any time by such an inundation, and the frequent warnings the people have had may justly fill them with a deep sense of their dependent condition, and with constant gratitude to Providence for their preservation." (Hewatt, Vol. 2, pp. 181-182)
Apparently, this was Governor Glen's attitude, for he declared November 23, 1752 a day of thanks for God's mercies, and warned that he was,
"REQUIRING all manners of Persons to observe the same in the most solemn and religious manner, as they tender the Divine Favour and Protection, and as they would avoid such Punishment as may be lawfully inflicted upon all who refuse or neglect to do so. (South Carolina Gazette, Nov. 20, 1752)
The hurricane of 1752 was one of the most devastating in Charleston's history. Although the number of lives lost cannot be determined, a contemporary Boston press report, based on a ship's officer's account, estimated that ninety-five people were drowned. The maelstrom, which also struck surrounding areas, had many long-term effects. The destruction of trees was severe, one plantation owner's loss was assessed at $50,000, (David M. Ludlum. Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870. American Meteorological Society. 1963, p. 46.) and many of those trees which survived were "heart-shaken," and unfit for use. (Ramsay, Vol. 2, p. 182n.) Crops were often more damaged as the storm followed a severe drought. It was necessary to enact laws to regulate the exportation and sale of corn, "Peafe (Peas)," and small rice, (South Carolina Gazette, Oct. 9, 1752) so that "the Poor may be able to purchase Provisions at a moderate Price." (Ibid., Sept. 27, 1752) The destruction of the touwn's fortifications also proved serious and enduring. In "THE PETITION OF THE MERCHANTS, TRADERS, PLANTERS AND OTHERS INTERESTED IN THE TRADE AND PROSPERITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA AND GEORGIA" dated London, Dec. 21, 1756, the citizens of Charleston, terrified by the possibility of invasion by the King's enemies during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) declared,
"That by a Violent Hurricane in September 1752 the fortifications guarding the Entrance into the Harbor and all those about charles Town were entirely destroy'd, which the province at a great expence have been rebuilding ever since..."
They went on to state,
"these provinces are by their situation more exposed to the Incursions of the Enemy and of the Indians depending on them and in their interest than any of Your Majestys dominions in North America, as by their great distance from New York and the Northern Colonies they can expect no relief from forces Sent on that Service."
Confronted with these difficulties, the colonists proceeded to plead for aid from the royal government. (Philip Hamer and George C. Rogers, ed. The Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 2, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, S.C., 1970, p. 379) More help was forthcoming from nature than the King. Although Charleston suffered a myriad of other disasters -- fires, fevers, wars -- she was spared another severe hurricane until 1804
The "TREMENDOUS STORM!" that began at approximately 10 P.M. on the night of September 7, 1804, proved to be less devastating than that of 1752 but equally demoralizing. By 1 A.M., September 8, at which time the first report on the hurricane was put on the presses, the atmosphere was one of alm tinged with hysteria. The newspaper stated,
"At this moment...the storm rages with unabated fury, and threatens destruction to the New East-Bay street, and very considerable injury to all the wharves on East-Bay. On South-Bay the damage and consternation is immense...one man is drowned, up to, or above Lamboll-street. Thge whole extent of Water-street is under water. Much injury is already done to the shipping in the harbor."
The report concluded, "We must of necessity reserve the details of the melancholy event to a future number." (Charleston Times, September 8, 1804)
Wave and ships battered the wharves along South Bay Street. Almost all of the vessels in the harbor were severely damaged if not demolished. New East Bay Street,
"is again destroyed; the sea made...breaches through it, and rushing into Water-street, and the adjacent parts, compelled the inhabitants to quit their houses. In the lower stories of some of which the water was 14 inches deep. In this part of the city...the tide rose higher than it has ever been known since the hurricane of 1752...the whole of Water-street was covered, and in Meeting-street it ws nearly two feet in depth. The public loss in the destruction of East-Bay street is considerable; nor do we suppose that ten thousand pounds will repair the damage."
South Bay Street was no better. Instead, it
presents a scene of ruin and desolation -- The whole of the bulwark, from Meeting-street to Makenzie's wharf is washed away, a two-story house...built on made ground, some little distance from the street, was washed down, and...all the furniture swept away -- A large brick warehouse...was also blown down. The tide rose so high, that most of the inhabitants quit their houses, and took shelter in a more central part of the city -- Two or three small coasting vessels were hard driven to pieces."
Fences and trees were blown down an the vegetation blasted with salt spray. The wind and sea severely damaged the Exchange building. A number of small buildings and stables were destroyed "among which a range on the Washington Course, occupied during the races and public houses, are levelled." (Ibid., September 10, 1804)
Charleston's surrounding areas were also seriously affected. On Sullivan's Island,
"About twenty houses were either blown down, or their foundations undermined and washed away. Theinhabitants had fortunately resorted to the LaZaretto (pest house), Barracks, and other parts of the island not immediately exposed to the fury of the waves, and ...only one life was lost...The storm was so violent that nothing could be saved from the houses destroyed....Several houses which have stood the gale...owe their security to large beds of sand which were driven against them; and formed a rampart." (Ibid.)
The hurricane of 1804 was the last great storm before that of 1861 when not the sea but men managed to once again tear asunder Charleston's tranquility. Perhaps Charleston's resilience, learned through years of a necessarily fatalistic endurance of natural catastrophes and the inevitable, unavailing days of humiliation and fasting which followed, served to prepare the city for the blow to come.