Dispatch From Quarantine Island: Original Transcripts of Archibald C. McKinley’s 1886 Earthquake Account

By James Calemine

On September 24, 2019, I made another trip to Quarantine Island with Michael Gowen. I’ve known Gowen about 36 years, and he is now the caretaker of Quarantine Island. Quarantine served as the designated location sick (mostly yellow fever) sailors were stationed before they entered the port of Brunswick, GA. Ruins of a hospital can still be found on Quarantine. Quarantine (Station) was operated by the Marine Hospital Service from 1893 to 1938. It’s an idyllic place now.

Archibald C. McKinley was born in Lexington, Georgia, in 1842, and served as a Confederate officer during the Civil War. McKinley served in the “Western Army” during the Civil War and was “captured at Vicksburg, MS., by the Yankees on July 4, 1863.” Just after the war, he began farming near Milledgeville, Georgia, and within a year had met and married Sarah Spalding, a granddaughter of Thomas Spalding, who had built his plantation empire on Sapelo Island. 

How McKinley’s pages made it to Quarantine Island remain unclear. On my first few visits to the remote small island I explored the house, tool barn, kitchen, guest house/office, ruins, beach and the surrounding virgin environs. It’s private land and no one is allowed on the island besides Gowen’s guests. A perfect view of the Sidney Lanier Bridge can be seen from Quarantine.

In the guest house I discovered the original inscriptions of McKinley’s account of a rare earthquake that hit the Georgia coast in August-September of 1886 when he lived on Sapelo Island. The earthquake was felt in Savannah and Charleston, but I’ve never read such a detailed account of the earthquake as McKinley’s. The Georgia coast is not known for earthquakes.

These pages eventually turned into the book The Journal of Archibald C. McKinley. The photographed pages are the original University of Georgia 1969 transcripts preserving what McKinley wrote a century before: “Having (nearly) 230 pages of my journal and my life being very uncertain I request the following disposition be made of it in case of my death…”

The account begins: “Tonight at about twenty minutes after 9 (9:20) o’clock I was in my bed, which stands with head to southeast and foot to N.W., lying down when suddenly the foot of the bed rose up–then sinking back, the head rose and sank the same way. It was an earthquake, and the heaviest I ever felt…”

McKinley wrote he got his family out of the house, which was “swaying to and fro, and cracking and creaking like a ship in a storm at sea…”

The quake shocks continued and modified in severity. This continued for 26 days, and McKinley documented every tremor on each day and time. Here we are 133 years later–almost to the day–on Quarantine reading these pages.

On September 3, he wrote: “A very heavy shock tonight at ten o’clock and forty minutes–rolling me side to side in my bed. It is hardly necessary to say I did not stay in the bed long.” The following day he reported: “Only one shock of any severity tonight–but the ever-present tremor is still with us: For six consecutive days and nights of shock and tremble–causing loss of sleep, is wearing us out.”

The September 6 entry reveals: “The earthquake shocks still continues–though with much less violence. They are regular as clockwork.”

These tremors continued until September 25, when McKinley began documenting more ordinary details of day-to-day life. It’s almost incomprehensible to think of earthquakes striking the Georgia coast, but McKinley’s documentation ranks as Georgia history of the highest order. He died in 1917.

Stay tuned for my next Dispatch from Quarantine Island…

www.jamescalemine.com

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