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Earthquake Bolts

On August 31, 1886, Charleston was struck by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded on the East Coast. Its epicenter was in Summerville, some 25 miles northwest of the city, and shocks were felt as far away as Canada. Hundreds of buildings in and around the city were badly damaged or destroyed. Buildings that could be salvaged were repaired or rebuilt, using long iron rods for reinforcement.The iron rods were run through walls and anchored with a washer-type device, known as a gib plate, and a large iron nut. These can still be seen on many Charleston buildings and are called "earthquake bolts." Though earthquake bolts were made in a variety of shapes, they were fairly plain. Some building owners chose to disguise them with cast iron decorations, such as lions' heads, or stucco. The effectiveness of earthquake bolts has never been conclusively determined. They may have been a brilliant scheme which has kept many important buildings in Charleston standing since 1886, or, as one local skeptic has suggested, they may have been a brilliant scam by an enterprising earthquake bolt salesman. Scam or scheme, their effectiveness during another big quake is very much open to question. Photos linked below illustrate various types of earthquake bolts around the city.

14 George St.
corner bolts skillfully integrated with exterior ornamentation

235 Meeting St.
lions' heads cover the gib plates on many Charleston buildings

190 East Bay St.
a rarity: two types of plates, an "s" and an "x," on the same wall

198 East Bay St.
horizontal stars and vertical circles

1 Broad St.
rarely seen: rectangular plates on a flat wall

22 Vendue Range
a row of boltplates recessed in a stucco exterior wall

407 King St.
bolts forming front and side reinforcements

47 East Battery
many circular plates have "x" in relief

51 East Battery
"star" plates are much rarer on residential buildings like this one

59 Anson St.
an unusual series of "x" plates anchored with one long slat

5 Tradd St.
the lower half of an "s" plate trimmed to fit under molding

79 East Bay St.
"x" plates tend to be less regularly arranged than other types

85 East Bay St.
close-up view of a circular plate, the most common type