1911 (August 27-29) Hurricane

ME 4010d Courtesy of The Charleston Museum www.charlestonmuseum.org

The schooner Edwina was taking on lumber at South Atlantic Wharf when the storm struck. She had eight feet of water in the hold, and her captain told the News and Courier’s reporter it would be a $4000 job to get his vessel in shape again.
View from Southern Wharf. From right to left: 31, 29, 25, 21, 17, 13, and 9 East Battery.

On the eighteenth anniversary of the 1893 Cyclone, South Carolina’s Lowcountry was struck by the Charleston-Savannah hurricane of August 27-29, 1911. Unlike most Atlantic hurricanes, the storm tracked directly east to west, blowing ashore without warning. Its eye passed a few miles north of Savannah. At the south side of the system, Savannah experienced less property damage than Charleston, and no deaths. Seventeen lives were lost in the Charleston area.

During the breezy morning of August 27, barometric pressure fell steadily. As wind gusts whipped up whitecaps, experienced mariners and shipping merchants began securing their waterfront property, hours before storm flags went up. By 1:00 PM, the Weather Bureau’s wind gauge measured forty-eight miles per hour. Forecaster H. S. Cole sent word to people on the islands to evacuate to the mainland, and at 3:45 PM he ordered the hurricane warning flag to be raised above the Customs House. The red banner with a black square in its center danced wildly in the increasing wind.

The sky was clear, and August 27 seemed to be a normal late-summer Sunday. Beach cottages and hotels were filled; on the Isle of Palms fifteen hundred people were spread along the beach and waterfront pavilion. Personnel stationed at Fort Moultrie went door-to-door on Sullivan’s Island with the evacuation order, while employees of the waterfront pavilion on Isle of Palms passed the word to return to Charleston. Travel from the islands relied on the trolley line across Cove Inlet to Mount Pleasant, then a ferryboat to Charleston. The Lawrence, the first afternoon boat, took hundreds of people to the city, but others stayed on the beach all afternoon, waiting for the last trolley at 6:20 PM. By that time, the weather was too rough for the steamboat to collect the last 350 excursionists. The daytrippers were stranded. (All were eventually accounted for, with no fatalities.) Many of those who fled Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms crowded into the Charleston Hotel, the St. John Hotel, and The Argyle. They filled rooms vacated by business travelers who had rushed to the railroad depot, “so anxious to leave before the storm reached its height that they walked all the distance to the Union Station.”

About 8:00, broken electric lines shut down the trolley car lines. Then the lights went out. Telegraph lines snapped, and Charleston was cut off from all communication. The wind roared and waves boomed against the seawalls. Chimneys toppled, airborne roofing slates and tin shattered windows; shutters, fences, and trees crashed into buildings. Above it all, the bells of St. Michael’s Church could be heard clanging as the massive steeple swayed in the storm. The editor of the daily News and Courier commented mildly that “the night was a creepy one.” Publishing as usual on August 28, the paper covered the hurricane as breaking news.

The tempest lasted more than thirty-six hours, most intensely just before midnight August 27. (Maximum sustained wind, estimated at 106 mph, was not recorded because the Weather Bureau’s wind gauge failed.) There was some let-up the next morning, but the wind blew steadily above 50 mph all day and increased again in the afternoon. Around 4:30 AM on Tuesday, August 29, the wind speed finally dropped below 35 mph. The storm also pounded Charleston with steady rain, nearly two inches in the twenty-four hours ending at midnight Sunday August 27. A total of 4.9” of rain soaked the city during the three days of the hurricane.

As soon as the weather cleared on August 29, trolley service was restored. Great crowds thronged the Battery all day “viewing the work of the storm.” On August 31, Southern Railway’s passenger agent in Columbia predicted a record-breaking rush to Charleston for the weekend. It would be the end of the season for excursion rates, and “people of the interior are anxious to see the havoc wrought by the storm.”  

Warnings and No Damage – The Hurricane of October 18-19, 1910

A few days after the 1911 hurricane, the News and Courier lashed out at the United States Weather Bureau. “The failure of the Weather Bureau to apprise the people of Charleston and its vicinity of the approach of Sunday’s hurricane is the subject of the most decided indignation in this community. The storm took the people wholly by surprise. Worse than that, not only were they without proper warning from the Weather Bureau… but many citizens were lulled into a sense of security through the assurances given them by the Weather Bureau.” (The forecast published Sunday morning, August 27, was for “local showers Sunday and Monday, light to moderate east winds.”)

Local faith in the forecasting ability of the federal weather service was partly the result of the previous year’s violent storm, which tore through the Caribbean and Key West, up the Florida peninsula and into Savannah. Charlestonians knew they were in the path of the hurricane, and prepared for it to strike on October 20. Instead, the storm turned seaward north of Savannah. Although Charleston experienced stiff winds and heavy rain, the hurricane affected the city very lightly.

Charleston News and Courier, extensive coverage beginning August 28, 1911.
“Charleston in Grip of Fatal Hurricane.” The New York Times, August 29, 1911.
“Climatological Data For August, 1911. District No. 2, South Atlantic and East Gulf States.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric [NOAA] Monthly Weather Review. http://books.google.com

“Wreck and Ruin in Storm’s Wake.” News and Courier, October 19, 1910.
“Hurricane quits land for sea. Storm has passed out to sea. Centre [sic] of the disturbance will not come here.” News and Courier, October 20, 1910.
“Hurricane claims heavy toll.” News and Courier, October 21, 1910.

Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Lowcountry Hurricanes. Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2006.

A New Guide to Modern Charleston, 1912. 1911, Walker Evans and Cogswell. http://books.google.com
The Argyle, 1911. Known in the nineteenth century as the Pavilion Hotel, the hotel was renamed St. Charles in 1895. In 1900, Charleston architect Albert W. Todd drew plans for a thorough renovation of the ninety-room hotel, which was named The Argyle by its new owner. The Argyle was torn down in 1957 and replaced by the King Charles Inn.
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. 15, Issue 85 (June 1857)

The Pavilion Hotel at the corner of Meeting and Hasell streets was built after the 1838 fire

C. Drie. Bird's Eye View of the City of Charleston, South Carolina. 1872. American Memory, Library of Congress http://memory.loc.gov/

Mills House, Charleston Hotel, and Pavilion Hotel, 1872.

The Pavilion, “though of less pretension exteriorly than its two neighbors, is yet a fine, ample, commodious building, capable of receiving and entertaining happily, almost as many guests as either.” (W. Gilmore Simms, 1857)

MK 21211 Courtesy of The Charleston Museum www.charlestonmuseum.org

Pavilion Hotel, 1893. The pressed-metal cornice and parapets were added during repairs after the Earthquake of 1886. A few years after this photograph was taken, a fire swept through the fourth floor, attic, and roof of the hotel. The ornate cornice and parapets were lost.

“Burning of the St. Charles. The Roof and Fourth Story were Destroyed.” News and Courier, September 17, 1899.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress www.lofc.gov

“The many handsome electric signs which adorn Charleston’s White Way were swaying desperately Sunday night.”
King Street at night, ca. 1910.

Advertisement in News and Courier, December 1909

Surprisingly few of the plate-glass windows on King Street’s retail buildings were broken. However, two of the largest in the city, at Kerrison’s on Hasell Street, were smashed. This image shows Kerrison’s Dry Goods Store in 1909.

City Engineer's Plat Book (S. C. History Room, Charleston County Public Library)
Kerrison’s Dry Goods in 1882. The rear wing, shown here as two stories, was later enlarged to four floors.
“Broad Street Looking West” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress www.lofc.gov
The newly-completed People’s Building, Charleston’s first skyscraper, sustained heavy damage in the August 1911 hurricane. “While, of course, the building itself was not damaged,” the bronze cornices were blown off. The small section of cornice left intact was removed during repairs.
“U.S. Quartermaster’s Office” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress www.lofc.gov
Broad Street facing west, between 1861 and 1865. The four-story brick building with its portico over the sidewalk was taken down for construction of the People’s Building.
News and Courier, December 8, 1909

18 Broad Street, 1909

“There are many who are glad of the new and handsome building but nevertheless view with regret the removal of the present building on the corner.”
New Office Building Begun. Work of Tearing Down Old Structures is Begun.
News and Courier, December 8, 1909.

Sanborn Company Insurance Map
Broad Street in 1902.
Preservation Society of Charleston
Broad Street and People's Building, 2013.
A New Guide to Modern Charleston, 1912. http://books.google.com
“Tales are told of foolhardy and daring feats performed by bathers at the Isle of Palms yesterday. The water had reached almost to the pavilion at an early hour in the afternoon and the water at the regular beach line was very deep. A strong undertow was in action and the waves were fairly boiling. Yet the more than 75 people who went in bathing ventured out to the edge of the beach and further.”