23 August 2015

The Most Devastating Natural Disaster in Beaufort District's History (thus far)

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

Today the story of the “Tide of Death” of 1893 is largely unknown outside our region. Nevertheless, the Great Sea Island Storm still ranks in most registers as the fifth most deadly hurricane in US history. It remains the biggest natural disaster to befall Beaufort District. 122 years ago it devastated Beaufort County.  

When the storm came ashore it hit a radically different Beaufort County than the one we live in today. The county stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Charleston & Savannah Railroad Track wedged between the Savannah and Combahee Rivers. It's population was roughly the size of Hilton Head Island’s today, about 35,000 people. The County was over 90% black. Port Royal and St. Helena Sounds were very busy with shipping. The major source of employment was phosphate mining. Indeed, 60% of the phosphate produced in the US came from SC and half of that was mined in Beaufort County at good wages of $1 – 2 a day for the Black Sea Island laborers who made up the bulk of the labor force.

The bare bones history of the storm is captured in this historical marker put up at Penn Center in 2008 by the Beaufort County Historical Society: 12 ft tide, 120 mph winds, killing 2000 or more, leaving more than 70,000 destitute. 

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.  
Under normal conditions, the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office held 3 to 8 inquests per month in 1892 - 1894 but August 1893 was not ordinary. In the final three days of August 1893, juries determined the cause of death for almost 300 people – and we do not have any surviving records for much of Beaufort County. 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.

Susan Hazel Rice (1830 – 1911) of Beaufort describes the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 in her diary:    
Susan Rice's Diary, Beaufort District Collection

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. 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. 

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. 

Booklet by Rachel Mather; Palmetto Post Editor Samuel H. Rodgers (BDC)
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].  Circumstances in the field rapidly overwhelmed the Local Relief Committee. Governor Ben Tillman 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 to provide relief. Rachel C. Mather of Mather School was singled out for her compassion and charity by Palmetto Post editor, S.H. Rodgers (See image above). 

If you want to hear more about the Sea Island Hurricane, meet me at Hilton Head Branch Library on the 122 anniversary of this natural disaster. Every time I give this presentation I include something new I've learned through additional research - and this presentation will be somewhat different than the ones I did at Coastal Discovery Museum back in January 2015. I've nipped and tucked, pluffed up and smoothed out segments of those presentations for next week.  

(Natural & Local History)
Thursday, August 27 at 2 pm | BDC@ Hilton Head Island Branch, 11 Beach City Road
See photographs and hear first person accounts about the night death came to call 122 years ago, highlighting the Red Cross’s recovery efforts on Hilton Head Island.

Can't make it to Hilton Head Branch Library on the 27th? 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 https://bdcbcl.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/rachel-c-mather-1823-1903-3859k4scvdgpj-22/

Don't want to do your own research?  If you can only read one book about the devastation, I recommend that The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 by Bill and Fran Marscher is the one for you to read. Check out a copy from one of the branch library local history sections.

Please note: The Research Room contains rare and unique materials.  For example, the small collection of photographs that were taken in the days immediately after the Hurricane of 1893 and the Storm Swept Coast by Rachel C. Mather are being readied for inclusion in the Lowcountry Digital Library so that those who cannot visit the Beaufort District Collection in person can still view the photographs and read the booklet to better understand what happened here from August 1893 to July 1894. Both the photographs and the booklet should be available by the end of the year.
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.

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