Archive: 1893 storm killed hundreds in S.C.

An unidentified man stands amid wreckage from the August 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane that left 30,000 men, women and children homeless on the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Clara Barton set up headquarters in
an old warehouse in Beaufort and remained to oversee the aid effort for nine months.
An unidentified man stands amid wreckage from the August 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane that left 30,000 men, women and children homeless on the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Clara Barton set up headquarters in an old warehouse in Beaufort and remained to oversee the aid effort for nine months.

One-hundred and six years before Floyd, a hurricane nearly as powerful blasted the South Carolina coast with none of the advanced warning we get today.

The 1893 storm took much the same route as is predicted for Floyd, hugging the Florida coast before the eye came ashore near Beaufort. Remember the pictures of boats stacked on top of each other in the tidal creeks after Hugo? After the 1893 storm, the creek banks were piled with bodies. Nobody knows exactly how many died - at least 1,400, maybe 1,500, possibly 2,000. To this day, it ranks as the third deadliest hurricane in North American history.The 1893 storm had no official name. Officials hadn't started giving these monsters names and human characteristics at that point. If they had, this one would have been angry, strong and, worst of all, stealthy.

The State Weather Bureau received a forecast from Washington just before midnight on Aug. 26 that a storm was near Jupiter, Fla., and "may strike the South Carolina coast on Sunday."

Communication being what it was back then, few people heard the warning. The Charleston News & Courier posted updates on the wall outside its office. For thousands of people on the sea islands, that did as much good as hunkering down in their homes would do less than 24 hours later.

The storm hit with 130 mph winds in the early evening of Aug. 27, focusing its greatest fury around Beaufort. By the time dawn broke on Aug. 28, many of the sea islands had been scrubbed clean of buildings and people and nearly 40,000 South Carolinians were homeless. The storm wiped out the state's second largest industry, phosphate mining, and recovery efforts built up the reputation of a relatively new group called the American Red Cross.

Despite all of that, the storm remains stealthy more than a century later. The S.C. history books used by the state's third-graders make no mention of it. Walter Edgar's recent book, "The History of South Carolina," offers only passing references. Most comprehensive histories of the state give much more attention to the 1886 earthquake in Charleston that killed 110 people.

USC graduate student Craig Metts has written a scholarly paper on the storm. Among its conclusions are that the storm slipped out of history books because its victims were mostly freed slaves and their children, who had begun building new lives on the sea islands.

"History has always been looked at from the viewpoint of the famous and the wealthy," Metts said. "That area was nothing to the state's economy."

Veronica Gerald, director of history at the Penn Center near Beaufort, said the hurricane lives on in the lore of the Gullah people, but not in history books "because it affected primarily people of color." The history books "reflect the majority culture of the time."

Edgar doesn't necessarily see it that way. He said history books, especially his recent book, tend to focus on trends rather than one-time events such as natural disasters.

If someone was to write a history of natural disasters in the state, however, the 1893 hurricane would rate a long, sad chapter.

'West Indian Monster'

The lead headline in The State on Aug. 28, 1893, detailed 14 people being crushed to death in a train crash in New York. On the back page of the eight-page section, was a short story headlined "Cyclone At Charleston." It offered the account of a Mr. H.M. Evans, who arrived in Columbia around 11 p.m. from Charleston and told of severe damage from a cyclone that hit about 8 p.m.

By the next day, the paper was referring to the storm in large front-page headlines as "That West Indian Monster" and detailing its destruction not just along the coast, but also in Columbia.

"For eight or ten awful hours, the hurricane held the country relentlessly in its clutches, and man, woman and child, beast and bird alike were powerless to contend against the surging war of the elements.

"Hundreds of noble, lofty, lovely green-covered trees, constituting this city's greatest beauty, were ruthlessly torn from their root anchorage and laid across the streets. The devastation was complete in this respect as Sherman's work with the torch."

A separate story reported that damage was extreme in Charleston, but no loss of life was noted. A three-paragraph story from Savannah noted 17 deaths there.

The devastating human cost began to become apparent in an Aug. 31 story that reported at least 600 dead in the Beaufort area. "The beaches, the undergrowth, trees and shrubbery, the marshes and inlets are turning up new bodies every time an investigation is made. . . . So frequent are the discoveries that the finding of a single body attracts no attention at all. It takes the discovery of at least a clump of a half dozen or more to induce the people to show any feeling whatever."

The Beaufort County coroner swore in deputies on each island. One held inquests on 78 dead bodies in one day.

Only three drowning deaths were reported in the town of Beaufort. Almost all of the dead came from black families who had begun to farm the sea islands after the Civil War. These low-lying spits of land were inundated by a tidal surge that reached 20 feet on Daufuskie Island, 19.5 feet in Savannah and 10.9 feet on Edisto Island.

Mrs. R.C. Mather, a wealthy white Northerner, ran the Mather Industrial School for black children in Beaufort. A year after the hurricane, she wrote a short book chronicling the damage, hoping to raise sympathy and donations from her Northern friends.

She passed along tales told by some of her students. Maggie Waring said she and her family on St. Helena waded from house to house on the island, leaving one when a roof would blow off or a wall would cave in. "In the morning, when we went to see if we could find the house and get some dry clothes, there was no house. It had floated off, with all that was in it."

Margaret Weary told of piles of dead farm animals and humans on St. Helena. "We saw one dead woman holding on to a timber of her house with her teeth."

By the Sept. 2 newspapers, the death toll was about 1,500. More than 300 were on St. Helena Island alone.

Sheriff Reed, who like many in the Beaufort-area hierarchy of that time was black, traveled to Columbia to tell the state's leaders of the destruction not just of homes but of a way of life.

"The inhabitants of the islands are nearly all colored people," Reed said. "They farm on 10 or 20 acres farms. Since the war, many have them had accumulated much, and in recent years have become pretty well-to- do. Now they lose everything in a single night and are as poor as they were at the end of the war."

Clara Barton to the rescue

Like Hugo nearly a century later, the 1893 storm spread devastation throughout the state. A Methodist church blew down in Buckville in Horry County. In Allendale, bank President C.M. Hires lost his stable and three of his best mules. In Darlington, "houses, fences and trees went down before it like so much chaff," according to an article in The State.

In Columbia, the newspaper noted: "We have had a day of backset civilization. No electric cars, no electric lights, no telephones, no fire alarm telegraph, no trains, no telegrams. It takes the temporary loss of these things to make us fully appreciate them."

But on the sea islands around Beaufort, the losses weren't temporary. Houses, clothes, tools - they were gone. What had been a bountiful crop in the fields was either dead from salt intrusion or washed into the creeks.

The phosphate mining industry had been struggling to hold off competition from new Florida mines before the storm. Flooded by the hurricane's storm surge, many of the mines never opened again.

Gov. Ben Tillman issued a proclamation calling for the residents of South Carolina and the country to come to the aid of the victims. The storm had left "the people without shelter, without food, without the possibility of getting work except for a limited number, to confront the terrors of starvation until another crop can be grown."

South Carolinians donated tens of thousands of dollars. But with the country in the throes of an economic depression, the state Legislature and Congress refused to fund the relief effort. Rep. Murray, a black congressman from South Carolina, tried to tack funds for the victims onto spending bills in Congress, but he was thwarted every time.

That left the rescue effort to the public, people such as Mather.

"Since neither the State nor Congress has made any appropriation for the seventy-thousand sufferers," she wrote to Northern friends, "we can but appeal to Christian patriots and philanthropist to come to the rescue and send relief ere it be too late, lest the nation should incur the judgments of Heaven by allowing these people to perish in the very swamps where their ancestors passed so many years of unrequited toil."

Into this void rode Clara Barton and the Red Cross. Barton knew the area, having aided troops in the state during the Civil War. She even recounted meeting sea island hurricane victims who showed her war wounds she had treated at Fort Wagener near Charleston.

She formed the American version of the Red Cross in 1881, and the early efforts of the group focused on war relief. The Red Cross soon began to help out with natural disaster relief, most notably after the Johnstown Flood in 1889. The South Carolina effort was the Red Cross' first major hurricane relief.

Many of the private donations raised throughout the state were turned over to the Red Cross, which miraculously spread $30,500 around to feed and care for tens of thousands whose homes and farms were wiped out by the storm.

Barton wrote in her autobiography of the sea islands effort: "The submerged lands were drained, 300 miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and homes built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves."

She said about 20,000 refugees were living in the streets of Beaufort immediately after the storm. In October, she moved the food distribution sites from Beaufort to the islands to lure people back home.

Barton was hailed as a hero by many in the state, but some inland farmers hit hard by the storm complained that all of the aid was going to the sea islanders. In most cases, that was a black-vs.-white issue. Mather, who ran a mini- Red Cross operation out of her school, said dealing with the poor, white inland farmers was a no-win situation for her.

"Many of them would die rather than solicit help of a so-called 'nigger-teacher,' but help they must have or see their children pine away of hunger."

Amazingly, no widespread death from starvation or disease was reported in the months after the storm. The people suffered, but most persevered with the help of the Red Cross and other private relief agencies.

Many resumed the farming lifestyle their descendants still practice on some of the sea islands. But much has changed in the century since the storm of 1893.

Today, they share those islands with resort housing and golf courses. And today, weather satellites and modern communication give us plenty of warning about impending hurricanes.

Because of that, today the destruction from such a storm would be extraordinary in terms of structural damage, not death. Chances are, the 1893 hurricane will forever be the deadliest storm in the history of the state, even if it doesn't live on in history books.