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Econ Focus

Economic History

The storm killed more than 2,000 people and plunged Beaufort County, S.C., into an economic decline
By Betty Joyce Nash

Storm Stories

What is the coast line belt? A great many know, others do not and it is requisite for a thorough understanding of the situation to have a general idea of the country. Skirting the Atlantic coast all the way from Charleston to Savannah is a belt of what are known as sea islands. From Morris Island all the way down to Cockspur Island which guards the entrance to Savannah, all are companions in their distress. Morris Island, John's Island, Edisto, Wadmalaw and James Island, Charleston's neighbors have perhaps fared somewhat better than St. Helena, Coosaw, Dathaw, Port Royal, Paris, Daufuskie, Ladies and the myriads of smaller islands tributary to Beaufort.

...The populations on these islands is almost entirely colored, with a few whites who keep stores or manage exclusive farms. The crops consist almost entirely of sea island cotton, with a few patches of corn, potatoes and small grains. Nothing is left of the crops except on the highland. The phosphate fields have supplied labor to many of the more progressive farmers, who, after they have "laid by" their crops, turn it over to their wives and children. This side revenue is gone for the present at least. The boats in which they did their visiting, hauling, and trading are very nearly all gone, stripped of everything.

On St. Helena's Island, things are in a sad plight. Mr. Williams, a reliable white man, tells me that for ten miles there is not a dry spot on the island. House tops are resting in trees or are a mass of ruins. There are four thousand who are in immediate need of help.

A week ago, this was one of the most prosperous of the islands. The colored population were [sic] an industrious and well-behaved lot. They had made money with their cotton crops. They were disposed to be saving and have accumulated something. Many of them had two-story houses, and prided themselves on a horse and buggy. Things are woefully changed with them now.

The Charleston News & Courier, Sept. 3, 1893 (one week after the storm)

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No other portion of the continent is more secure in its isolation. Doubtless the tax-collector visits the islands — he goes everywhere; perhaps a pension agent is to be found there occasionally, for there are pensioners on the Sea Islands; but, practically, the people are isolated. They come to market in their little boats, but they have no regular channels of communication. Their coming and going is intermittent. If a stranger wants to visit the islands he must depend on a happy chance, and if he is in a hurry he will go away without seeing them. This was so before the August storm and it will be so when the storm has become a tradition.

But on the day after the hurricane, and for days that must have seemed an age to the Negroes on the wind torn and tide swept islands, there were no possible means of communication. The little boats of the Negroes had been blown away; the tugs and launches in and around Charleston, Beaufort, and Port Royal were driven ashore or temporarily disabled; a clean sweep had been made of all the craft that are available on ordinary occasions. It is said that the first information of the real condition of the islands was brought to Beaufort by two Negroes in a boat, one rowing and the other bailing; and only men impelled by dire necessity would have dared to venture across from one island to another in such a disabled canoe.

Relief, as eager as it was meager, had few means of reaching the islands, and when it reached them, it found itself in a dismal swamp where the dead lay about the shores unburied, where the living were either starving or dying from the pestilence generated by the decaying bodies, or by the stagnant ponds of seawater left by the receding tide.

It is estimated — and the estimate is not in the nature of a rough guess — that two thousand five hundred lives were lost in the islands and on the adjacent coast. The truth would not be missed very far if the number were placed at three thousand. Not all of those were lost in the storm. Two thousand persons, the great majority of them Negroes, were drowned or killed on the night of the storm. The others died from exposure, from a lack of food, or from the malarial fever that was epidemic on the islands during the hot September days that succeeded the disturbance.

Scribner's Magazine, January 1894

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By far the largest and most important industry in this section is that of mining and shipping phosphate rock. It means almost everything to these people. It supplies the means of a livelihood to at least 2,500 able-bodied men and the effect of the cyclone upon the work means a great deal to this community. No stranger can appreciate its deep significance and it will no doubt be many a day before anything definite can be told ...

Few can really appreciate what the cessation of this gigantic industry [means]. Plants aggregating millions of dollars in value are liable to lie idle, men apt to be thrown out of business, merchants deprived of a considerable source of their revenue and the State cut out of a good slice of debt paying income. It must be remembered that the river rock companies have during the past 8 months contributed over $170,000 in the way of royalties.

The Charleston News and Courier, Sept. 3, 1893

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At the beginning of the year, September 1, 1893, the State's Phosphate Industry was in a deplorable condition, the terrible cyclone of Aug. 27th 1893, having practically destroyed the mining plant of the State's licensees. The outlook was indeed gloomy. The Florida mines suffered no damage of consequence by the storm, and their production was enormous. The discovery of immense deposits in Algeria and of valuable deposits in Tennessee and other places lowered the price of phosphate rock to about the cost of production. The situation was indeed distressing.

Report of the State Phosphate Inspector for the Year Beginning Sept. 1, 1893, and Ending Aug. 31, 1894

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F.W. Scheper, a German citizen and one of the largest grocery merchants and financiers in town, returned from the mountains on Thursday and after viewing the wreck of the store houses, goods and his newly completed wharf, merely remarked: "Well, I made a mistake. I put that big warehouse in the wrong place. If I had known this storm was coming I would not have done that. It took me about 15 years to make what I have lost, but I am better off in experience and in 10 years I will make it again. I don't see anything to despair about."

The Charleston News and Courier, Sept. 5, 1893

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On Ladies Island, George Barnwell, foreman for Eustice Place and Hazel Farm, reports four houses built, ten repaired, 87,870 feet of ditching, fifty feet of dam, three miles of road across the island, thirty feet wide, cleared up and repaired; this latter required seventy-five men at work three weeks cutting out fallen trees, rebuilding bridges, and filling in washed places. Barnwell says, in closing his report: "The improvement of the land that is redeemed and put in good order for the farmers on Eustice Place, including the houses, is worth about three thousand dollars."

The Red Cross by Clara Barton, American National Red Cross, Washington, D.C., American Historical Press, 1904

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