On October 31, 1887, vendors lined the streets of downtown Charleston, awaiting the arrival of some 100,000 people expected to attend the inaugural Gala Week, a grand celebration of the city’s recovery from a devasting natural disaster.
In August 1886, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake (the largest ever recorded in the Southeast) rocked the Lowcountry, reducing businesses, residences, and churches to rubble. It caused more than $5.5 million in damages (about $112 million today), but over the course of one year, the trade industry’s profits escalated to an astounding $66 million.
In light of this economic boom, citizens agreed that a party was in order; thus, Gala Week was born. Thousands of people from South Carolina and the surrounding states poured onto the peninsula, greeted by flags, wreaths, and “Welcome” signs (as pictured here at the F.W. Wagener building on the corner of Queen and East Bay streets in 1891). Hotels and boarding houses were expected to be so crowded that residents opened their homes to visitors.
When the festivities began, there were boat races, rowing matches, and canoe contests in the harbor. Downtown, brass bands competed for prizes, and a parade marched through the streets. At night, people watched a majestic Venetian procession of boats lit by Chinese lanterns glide along the Cooper River, while others gathered at Colonial Lake for a fireworks display.
Gala Week was a smashing success, boosting business and entertaining locals and visitors alike for decades. The tradition eventually ceased in the early 20th century, though Charleston’s celebratory spirit lives on through a variety of modern-day festivals.
Photograph courtesy of the University of South Carolina Archives