On Sunday night, August 27, 1893, the eye of the huge, slow-moving Category 3 hurricane landed just south of Savannah.
The great Sea Island storm ripped through South Carolina’s coastal islands with a 10- to 12-foot storm surge on a high tide.
Estimates of the death toll ranged up to 3,500. No one could count all of the bodies that washed up in the marshes, drowned in the trees, were killed in their homes and suffered in the aftermath from starvation, dehydration, injuries, exposure and disease. At the time it was the nation’s worst-ever natural disaster.
It marked the first time the country realized that a cyclone, as it was called in those days, could kill people on land as well as at sea.
The Beaufort County’s population was 92 percent black at the time, mostly former slaves, their children and grandchildren. Many on the islands lived in wooden cabins, several with dirt floors. Their diets consisted of what they could raise on the land – livestock, corn, sweet potatoes, collard greens, rice, okra – and what they could catch in the creeks – oysters, fish, crabs, shrimp. They traveled by foot, ox cart, horse and wagon, sailboats and bateaux.
In those days, the Weather Bureau had no way of knowing about offshore storms except through ships’ crews when they came into port.
The forecasters had no way to notify coastal residents that they might be blasted by a hurricane, except by mailing postcards, flying storm flags from the top of buildings and sending telegraph messages. Some Savannah and Charleston residents got the word that a storm might hit. But most of the people knew nothing until they heard the wind howling and saw the creeks rising over their banks.
Growing up in Beaufort at age 12, my late husband, Bill Marscher, discovered old newspapers about what happened.
Later, over a period of about 50 years, he collected photographs, diaries, journals and correspondence from those who had lived through the hurricane. He followed up with research in the Library of Congress, the Boston and New York libraries, the American Red Cross headquarters, the U.S. Weather Service and other sources.
Then, more than a century after that hurricane – after I retired from The Island Packet – we sorted his massive information, did a bit more research at the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and wrote “The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893,” which Mercer University Press published in 2004.
Various personal accounts described the horrors of that Sunday night and St. Helena Island’s Penn Center has an even greater collection of survivors’ stories.
Keep in mind there were 20-foot waves, or bigger, on top of the storm surge of 10 to 12 feet deep on top of the normal high tide.
One St. Helena Island man used ox chains to save his home. He put the chains out one window of his small cabin, wrapped them around the trunk and put them back through another window and tied them together.
Viola Chaplin, a Penn School student, said the following in her paper “The Cyclone:”
“I will never forget as long as I live, how our island was overflowed with water, and we had nowhere to look for help, but [to] our Lord. Not one of us had the least idea that such a thing could happen. Our island was almost submerged. It was 12 feet deep in some places. Houses were shaken and floated by in the water, and there was a violent commotion everywhere. One man took his wife and children on his back, one by one, and put them up in a big oak tree and there they remained until morning.”
“I heard of another man who was taking his family in a large oak tree in the same way. He took his children first, thinking that his wife could protect herself better than the little ones, but when he hurried back for her, there lay his poor wife, knocked dead by the fallen limbs of the trees. Wasn’t it sad?”
“But I cannot tell all the sad things that happened that night before the wind changed and the tide ebbed.”i
Obviously, in a region so dependent the water, the hurricane’s damage to boats and docks was devastating.
It wiped out the region’s only significant wage-paying industry at the time – river phosphate mining. Its fleet in the Coosaw River consisted of 12 huge dredges, 11 wash boats, 10 tugboats, 107 flat barges and 95 tonging flats. It employed almost 3,000 workers.
As reported in the Savannah newspaper:
“On Monday after the storm, the scene (on the Coosaw River and the Sea Islands) beggared description. Looking down the Coosaw River … not a living object could be seen, not a craft afloat, but here and there appeared a blackened crane or barnacle-covered bottom of a barge or wash boat. The mining fleet, the pride and support of the people of this part of the state, lay wrecked and ruined in the marshes and woods along the shores for a distance of 12 miles.”
Among the hurricane’s casualties was the grand 272-foot steamship City of Savannah.
On her way from Boston to Savannah, she lost power and washed up on a shoal just off Fripp Island in the teeth of the storm and immediately began to break apart. Fortunately, all 30 people on board survived by rescue. Today her boiler is a fishing drop called “The Wreck.”
As for Hilton Head Island, reports of the aftermath surfaced in mid-October almost two months after great Sea Island storm roared through. After an inspection of Hilton Head, Red Cross agent Dr. John MacDonald wrote the following:
“I found 304 families, 1,285 people, in need of assistance. Those whose corn was entirely destroyed by the salt water were still eating it, having nothing else. This accounts for much of the stomach trouble I found. I advised them to burn rotten food and issued grits to them to replace it. With the exception of two wells … no water on either Hilton Head or Pinckney Island is drinkable, all of it being brackish.”
“There are a great many cases of malaria of more or less acuteness. The majority of the people suffer from contusions, colds, rheumatism, etc., the effect of exposure. These people are destitute of bedding and wearing apparel, their houses in many cases being entirely washed away. Many people are sleeping in the open air on the ground. We need lumber, nails, hatchets and saws badly.”
Bluffton – on a high bluff as the name says – escaped the worst of the hurricane.
It took plenty of wind damage to roofs and trees and boats. The storm surge spared Old Town Bluffton, as we now call it.
No one from Savannah to Georgetown escaped the losses from the great Sea Island storm. It destroyed the region’s fragile economy. The people were left destitute, terrified and helpless. Those who had a little left tried to help those with nothing, but nobody had enough of anything.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and president at the time, was appalled at the state and federal government’s indifference to the threat of a famine in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The state legislature adjourned without “making the slightest provision for the sufferers,” she said. The U.S. Congress specifically denied the request from the Red Cross for money to help. Garden seeds, tents and a couple of deep-draft boats came from federal departments. Private donations paid for everything else to help the stricken people.
Fortunately, Clara Barton worked on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War. She knew the lay of the land, the creeks and some of the people. She agreed, at the age of 72, to take charge.
Relief and recovery was a long, arduous process that lasted almost a year. Clara had to appeal northern donors for cash, food, clothing and other supplies through newspapers across the entire eastern half of the United States. Then, when provisions came into Beaufort by train or steamboat, she shipped them by ox cart, rowboat or sailboat to the other islands.
The hurricane’s victims had to do the rebuilding themselves. They dug 37 miles of drainage ditches on Hilton Head Island to drain off the saltwater before planting crops.
Still, it is the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 that haunts coastal South Carolinians who know about it.
Actually, the dead totaled 2,000 or more, possibly as many as 3,500, counting those who died in the aftermath. Injuries, starvation, malaria and other illnesses the Gullahs called “storm sickness,” later caused loss of life.
Archives, Penn Community Services, St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
The New York World, Oct. 19, 1893.
By Fran Heyward Bollin