During the 1886 Mw 7.3 Charleston, South Carolina, earthquake, three railroads emanating from the city were exposed to severe shaking. Expansion joints in segmented railroad tracks are designed to allow railroad infrastructure to withstand a few parts in 10,000 of thermoelastic strain. We show that, in 1886, transient contractions exceeding this limiting value buckled rails, and transient extensions pulled rails apart. Calculated values for dynamic strain in the meizoseismal region are in reasonable agreement with those anticipated from the relation between strain and moment magnitude proposed by Barbour et al. (2021) and exceed estimated tectonic strain released by the earthquake by an order of magnitude. Almost all of the documented disturbances of railroad lines, including evidence for shortening of the rails, can thus be ascribed to the effects of dynamic strain changes, not static strain. Little or no damage to railroads was reported outside the estimated 104 dynamic strain contour. The correspondence between 103 and 2×104 contours of dynamic strain and Mercalli intensity 9 and 8, anticipated from the dependence of each quantity on peak ground velocity, suggests it may be possible to use railroad damage to quantitatively estimate shaking intensity. At one location, near Rantowles, ≈20 km west of Charleston, a photograph of buckled track taken one day after the earthquake has been cited as evidence for shallow dextral slip and has long focused a search for a causal fault in this region. Photogrammetric analysis reveals that the buckle was caused by transient contraction of <10 cm with no dextral offset. Our results further weaken the evidence for faulting in the swamps and forests south of the Ashley River in 1886, hitherto motivated by the photograph and limited macroseismic evidence for high‐intensity shaking.

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