Digest>Archives> March 2000

Pages from the Past: Earthquake Rattles Lighthouse

By Richard Clayton


The humidity was running so high that it felt like everything he touched was wet. He lay there sweating and thinking he hadn't slept at all. The air was so still that he couldn't even hear the water lapping on the pylons below. Just hint of breeze wa s stirring. The room was as black as pitch and it was time to get up. It was Tuesday and he was still excited to be where he was.

He was up and making a pot of coffee to share with Mr. Lyon. It seemed hard to believe that here he was, William J. Simmons, Assistant Keeper of the Wade Point Lighthouse. "I will have been at this station three weeks tomorrow," he said quite proudly aloud to himself.

The Light Station was a hexagon shaped one-story house built on metal pylons a few miles offshore in Albemarie Sound in the northeastern corner of North Carolina. It was an important harbor light at the mouth of the Pasquaotank River that was the ent rance to the Port of Elizabeth City.

William was still in a daze from the wonderful reception he had received at church on Sunday. Mr. Lyon allowed him to row ashore for Sunday leave. He had worn his smart new Lighthouse Keeper's uniform and so many folks paid him a compliment on how sm art he looked. Miss Miller's father, who is a fisherman, spoke very highly of George Lyon, the head keeper of the Light. He said that Mr. Lyon was every bit as fine a keeper as Mr. Burgess had been before him.

Suddenly there was a loud jolt to the lighthouse that knocked William off his feet. The lighthouse was shaking violently as the pots and pans came out of the cupboards. The glass in the windows shattered and the furniture was flying all about the roo m. William was terrified. After a minute of pure hell, it suddenly stopped and all was calm, "What was that?" he shouted.

He ran up the steps to the tower to find Mr. Lyon inspecting the lens assembly. George Lyon didn't have a clue as to what that was, but he ordered William to take a lantern and go below to inspect the pylon structure. They had to determine what the d esign fault was that would cause the lighthouse to shake like that.

As both men were inspecting the light station, there was another hard jolt and a period of violent shaking. George made the following entry in the logbook:

"August 31, 1886. At 10:00 p.m. the house shook so. I was afraid it would shake down. There was a light breeze about north. The Assistant advised me to lower the boat away and get into her for safety. I hardly knew what to do, but remain and try to f ind the cause. We both took a lantern and searched the house from top to the bottom, but found nothing. I went up in the lantern room and expected to find the lens chasten of Pedestal. We felt the shaking four times. The shock was so heavy that I had the sail and oars put in the boat and all convenience for getting away." George Lyon, Keeper.

By the year 1886, The New York Times had a network of telegraph operators sending news by wire from all over the United States. The lead story on the front page, dated Wednesday, September 1, 1886 had this amazing headline"



Slight shocks of earthquake were felt in almost every section of this country last evening. The range of disturbance extending from this city as far west as Omaha and south as far as Mobile, AL.

The wave is reported generally as passing from north to south and the time of successive shakes is given varying a few minutes after 9:00 to 10 o'clock. After the earthquake shock, there was no telegraphic communication last night with Charleston, S. C. from any point in the country. The telegraph companies were not able to get any dispatches from there.

(Here are a few samples of various cities reporting in the New York Times)

St. Louis, MO Aug 31: About 9 o'clock tonight, a shock of earthquake was felt in this city. Hotel buildings felt the shock.

Chicago, IL Aug 31: The shock of earthquake this evening was felt here at exactly 9:01 o'clock and seems to have been of the same intensity to all parts of the city. Opinions differ as to the number of shocks.

New Haven, Conn. Aug 31: An earthquake shock was very perceptibly felt in this city this evening and caused no little excitement.

Springfield, Mass Aug 31: A faint shock of earthquake was felt here about 10 o'clock tonight.

Raleigh, NC Aug 31: Earthquake shocks were felt here tonight beginning at 9:50 o'clock and continuing nearly six minutes. Buildings rocked, walls cracked, floors broke loose from their supports, chimneys fell and lamps were overturned. Such decided s hocks were never felt before.

It was the most violent earthquake on record in the United States. It was later reported that the shock was felt as far north as Toronto, as far east as the Bermuda Islands, as far south as Cuba and as far west as St. Louis and Omaha.

The epicenter was in Charleston, S.C. Three quarters of the city was destroyed by the shock and fire. Railroads were inoperable as the rails were bent and twisted for miles. There were fissures in the roads so wide that a horse and wagon could not cr oss. The area was pockmarked with craterlets. 68 people died.

In 1885 a master hurricane did extensive damage to the Charleston Lighthouse. The harm had barely been corrected when the earthquake cracked the tower and wrenched its lens out of alignment. It also wrecked the keeper's dwelling.

George W. Lyon had been appointed Keeper on May 26th, just three months and five days before the quake. William J. Simmons had been there since August 12th. Two young men who had probably never been farther than 30 miles from the place of their birth in North Carolina experienced the shock of a lifetime in the Lighthouse Service.

North Carolina's Wades Point Lighthouse was rattled by an earthquake felt all over the country in 1886. The lighthouse was destroyed in the mid 1950's.

This story appeared in the March 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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