23 August 2013

Tide of Death: August 27 - 28, 1893

120 years ago the Sea Island Hurricane devastated Beaufort County.  

 A History of Storms on the South Carolina Coast, a report from the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, summarizes the storm this way:
Category 3 Extreme storm; winds SE 96 mph (Charleston); storm surge approached 20 feet on lower coast; St. Helena and other sea islands (Hilton Head) overflowed in considerable part; at Beaufort “ the water was so high that following the storm a catfish was found gilled on a fence that surrounded the Methodist Church”; property damages assessed in the millions of dollars (perhaps $10 million)’ at least 2000 and perhaps as many as 3000 lives lost in coastal Carolina, primarily at Beaufort, St. Helena, and Lady’s Island, from drowning.  

Susan Hazel Rice (1830 – 1911) of Beaufort describes the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 in her diary:
Sunday, Aug. 27, 1893  
The wind blew all night & is still blowing as I fear we may get the gale yet. My head aches too. We went to church in morn & was pleased with Lewis sermon from Luke 17-11 "And these are in the world". He is to preach again tonight if it does not storm. Mr W took dinner with us & it rained & blew so hard that he could not go to Port Royal. About 4 oclock the wind rose and at bed time it was a gale so he staid & a blessing he did for the tide was 2 ft deep in our lower story & plastering falling & rain beating in everything.
Monday, Aug. 28, 1893                                                                                                                         What a gale we had all night Every room soaking wet, sashes blowing in & Mr. W & Lewis were all night nailing doors & sashes We all lay on pallets in the sitting room but got no sleep until 4 A.M. When day light came what a scene of desolation. The tin is taken completely off our shed room & blinds blown off & sashes broken. not a dry room in the house & the lower story in dreadful condition. But we are better off than many others. My cow was drowned & most of the chickens. Can't make fire in stove as chimney is broken in & stove full of salt water. Our cistern ruined.
Among the dead, was Susan Hazel Rice's beloved brother, Dr. Gowan Hazel, a physician.
Tues. Aug. 29, 1893
Bright & warm About 3 o'clock yesterday I got a note from Dr. Stuart saying my own Brother was drowned. I cannot believe it & cannot bear it if it is true. Mr. Holmes went down in a rowboat & brought this (sic) remains of the loving brother, getting home about one o'clock this morn. He does not look natural but is a small comfort to be able to look upon his poor discolored face once more, but to think I never shall hear him speak again is too much for me to bear. We buried him at 11 A.M. & I have come to my home where he will never more come. Mr. Wilkins had a very appropriate service & Lewis made the prayer.

In 1959 C. Mabel Burn recalled the storm of her youth, describing some of the Beaufort area damage and relief efforts for the Beaufort County Historical Society.  She recalled the death of Dr. Hazel and others:
There was only one white person lost that I remember of.  It was Dr. Hazal [sic], brother of Mrs. Susan Rice.  He was quarantine doctor on Parris Island at the outgoing sea depot, and he was drowned.  We understood he lost his life in an effort to save the lives of two negro boys.  There was much difficulty in getting the body to the Baptist cemetery, as streets were piled high with debris, but by many windings and sending men ahead with axes to cut debris of trees, etc. the hearse finally made it and he was buried. 

 But on St. Helena and Lady’s Island, hundreds of people were drowned, almost entirely negro, for they had no way to escape, and the people of Beaufort town could not get to them, as there was no bridge to cross the river, boats only could be used, and these were a wreck and sunken so not available.

For weeks men hunted these islands for the bodies, and when found buried them at once, for no funerals could be held. 

Burn was living on the Point when the storm hit causing wide-scale destruction: 

The waves of the sea dashed against houses and on the Point where we were living, all small houses were washed away; not one was left standing when morning came.

Around 1 A.M. there was a furious ringing of our door bell, and a tall Negro man we knew asked if he might bring women and children to our front porch as all their houses were gone, and they had them in boats seeking shelter.  My Father said “No, the piazza is about to go as it is only held up by one column.  Bring them into the house.” So in a room used as a private school room, and equipped with benches and chairs they were sheltered the rest of the night.  Three trips of the big ferry boat were made, bringing 12 to 15 people each trip, so we had around 30 people sheltered for the night.  They had lost everything they possessed except what was on their backs.  When morning came, two old colored people, man and wife were drowned.  One lay at our front door, the other at the back…. 

 Entire roofs of houses went whirling through the air ... Boards from a house on the next corner from ours, probably 200 ft. away had been torn off and driven end ways through the side of our house.  The house was so badly ruined we had to leave it when the storm was over. …

The water front was a shambles. …

The Steamer “Clifton,” a steam boat which operated between Beaufort and Savannah, was carried by the waves to the bend beyond the Court House [then on Bay Street] and placed right against the bluff. …

Every street in town was piled as high as the house tops with uprooted trees, demolished houses, household furniture, etc. …

For weeks fires were kept burning in the streets and dead bodies of dogs, chickens, etc. were flung in and burned for they could not be buried.

The Sun Dispatch, a newspaper out of Charleston, probably the issue of September 3, 1893 reported about conditions in Beaufort County. Section headings of the article “Out of the Depths” describing the situation in Beaufort County include: The Coroner’s Gruesome Task; Eight Feet Higher than Spring Tide!; Over a Million Dollars Lost; Eighty Per Cent of the Houses Gone; Lowland Crops Utterly Destroyed; Four Thousand at St. Helena Hungry; Senator Verdier’s Story of the Storm; and Money Losses in Beaufort Town among others.  (Unfortunately the photocopy of the article is not complete nor clear enough to result in a decent digital scan. ) 

The article includes several tables of statistical data including one on the number of casualties in Beaufort County as given by the overwhelmed Beaufort County Coroner Wells who acknowledges that the list is not complete:

Between 1000 - 2000 people died as the result of the surging waters and fierce winds that came ashore.  A precise count of the dead cannot be made as many bodies were swept out to sea. 

The Casualty list of names of 294 people whose deaths were attributed to the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 in the Beaufort County Coroner’s Inquisition Records is posted at http://bdcbcl.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/storm-of-1893-death-list/. You can read the Inquisition Records in the Beaufort District Collection Research Room during our regular hours of operation.

120 years later, the Sea Island Hurricane remains the 5th most deadly storm in US history.

Relief efforts were hampered by the extent of the destruction.   The local Relief Committee consisted of six men: George Holmes, Beaufort’s Intendant (Mayor); Robert Smalls, Port Collector; William Lockwood, Banker; Capt. N. Christensen, Hardware Merchant; Thomas F. Walsh, Dispenser (Liquor store owner); E.F. Convonsieur, Railroad Agent, and George W. Ford, Colored [sic].   The Sun Dispatch says that the committee met the previous evening deciding to issue an appeal for immediate relief to “the American people” for the estimated 6000 people in desperate need and that a determination was made that information will not be given to the press until the facts were corroborated.   

Circumstances in the field rapidly overwhelmed the Local Relief Committee.  Governor Ben Tillman, “believing that methodical business management and experience were better,” asked Clara Barton and her Red Cross organization to take charge.  This would be the first hurricane relief effort in the history of the United States Red Cross.  Barton and her staff arrived in Beaufort on September 20 and remained for 10 months.  Much good was accomplished but questions about the uses of the supplies and funds provided by the Red Cross were raised.  

Other relief workers were criticized.  Personal accounts of the hurricane's effect are replete in Storm Swept Coast by Rachel C. Mather.  Mather ran a Methodist supported School of Negro Girls on the Shell Road [current day site of the Technical College of the Lowcountry] and published the booklet as a means to garner sufficient funds and in-kind donations of food and clothing to assuage suffering.  The $120 spent on publication could have been better spent on actual relief wrote the Palmetto Poston July 5, 1894.  

A week later, the Palmetto Post editor wrote "we did her an injustice with the lights now before us, and hasten to remedy the evil.  The book is to be sold.  It is a readable account of the storm, and an acknowledgment of benefits derived from charitable people who went down in their pickets to aid the distressed.... Miss Mather pays a tribute to the Red Cross which many think it in no way deserves.  Why, with an amount not over $10,000 Miss Mather did more real good work among the sufferers than the vaunted Red Cross with four times the amount." 

Traumatic events often trigger artistic expression.  “The Storm of 1893,” a song sung locally in the hurricane’s aftermath, had this chorus:

            Oh the wind did blow so high
            And de storm was all abroad
            But yet we recognize in it
            The wonderful power of God.

We've posted a revised list of materials on the topic of the Sea Island Storm for those who are interesting in learning much more about this local historical natural disaster and its long-lasting effects.  One can also find list of materials about Rachel C. Mather (http://bdcbcl.wordpress.com/article/rachel-c-mather-1823-1903-3859k4scvdgpj-22/) and Clara Barton (http://bdcbcl.wordpress.com/article/clara-barton-1821-1912-3859k4scvdgpj-30/.) 

Check out The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 by Bill and Fran Marscher from one of our branch library local history sections for the most poplar book on today's topic. 

Because many Coastal Empire residents have little memory of the damage that hurricanes cause,  Georgia Public Radio's Orlando Montoya posted a blog entry about this storm for our neighbors to the South. Some of the images from the Beaufort District Collection are in used in that blog entry.  (direct link: http://www.gpb.org/news/2013/08/27/dud-hurricane-season-not-in-1893)
A History of Storms on the South Carolina Coast by Laylon Wayne Jordan with Robert Dukes, Jr. and Ted Rosengarten, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, 197?, p. 32. 

“Out of the Depths,” [probably the Sun Dispatch (Charleston, SC), September 3, 1893, front page and maybe other pages]. 

“The Storm of 1893,” uncited.  A photocopy was distributed during the Heritage Society of Beaufort Annual Luncheon, 2004.  

“The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropic Cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (and Frequently Requested Hurricane Facts)” by Eric S. Blake, Christopher W. Landsea and Ethan J. Gibney, National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, August 2011.   

“Sea Island Sufferers” http://dc.statelibrary.sc.gov/bitstream/handle/10827/638/State_of_the_State_Address_1893-11-28.pdf?sequence=1 begins at p. 43.  Governor Tillman asks the SC General Assembly to grant the State Comptroller- General the authority to suspend collection of state taxes in the hard hit counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Berkeley and Georgetown during his Annual Address delivered in November 1893.

"Miss Mather's Book," Palmetto Post, July 12, 1894, p. 2.

Palmetto Post, July 5, 1894, p. 2.

Images were taken from our own holdings.  Please credit "Beaufort County Library."

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