30 October 2012

Was there a Tidal Wave?

I wrote about a tidal wave purportedly being caused by the earthquake of 1886 on our Facebook page back on Oct. 22nd as part of the continuing series of posts about local natural disasters in honor of SC Archives Month.  However, odds are, with further examination, that the tidal wave mentioned in Burt Rodgers presentation, simply didn't happen! 
The Palmetto Post, a newspaper based in Port Royal then, did not mention any tidal wave in its rather extensive reporting on the earthquake, its aftershocks, or the damage caused by same.  The newspaper included some colorful tidbits, such as "Weather Prophet Wiggins  now claims to have predicted the great earthquake, and the most remarkable thing about it is that he claims that he predicted it before it occurred." (Sept. 16, 1886, p. 2); the vilification of one John Thomson of Charleston for evicting earthquake survivors from his vacant lot; the inadequacy of the Western Union telegraph line in Beaufort; and, phosphate rock cracking at the Coosaw mines, but the newspaper is absolutely mum on the purported tidal wave.  
I propose that the author of "Reminiscences of Beaufort Storms" had heard the story about the tidal wave throughout his life. He was but a toddler when the Earthquake of 1886 occurred as the preface to his talk indicates.  Here is what he wrote:
My friends of the Historical Society have taken me for a much older person than I am and have indicated it by asking me to tell something about the earthquake.  I was only two years of age at the time -- I was born in 1884 and the earthquake was in 1886.  However, I have heard many things pertaining to the earthquake and some of those present know more about what happened than I, and I hope they will correct me or add to what I might say so as to make the record as nearly complete as possible."     
There is nothing in the written paper to indicate the discussion afterwards so we don't know what transpired.  Perhaps the tidal wave story was corrected; perhaps not.  Reminiscences can quickly turn into folklore.  Folklore has a way of going unquestioned as basic rules of historical research go unobserved.  Given the date of the presentation (June 1950) , I doubt that Mr. Rodgers had access to the Palmetto Post issues from August - September 1886 where he could have read newspaper accounts of the earthquake and its aftermath. And, as his title indicates, this was a "Reminiscence," his recollections of what he had heard about the earthquake - not a formal historical study.  
We have an advantage.  We have the Palmetto Post newspaper on microfilm in the Beaufort District Collection Research Room, Beaufort Branch, and Hilton Head Branch Libraries.  Why not drop by one of the locations and read the Palmetto Post issues for yourselfJust be sure to keep the rules of historical research in mind: question what is written or conveyed for factual accuracy, bias, and completeness.   

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