Disasters both natural and man-made—or in the case of climate change, some measure of both—can reduce built environments to ash and rubble with little warning. In cases like the Lisbon earthquake, the Great Fire of London, or the bombing of Dresden, cities have been completely rebuilt. In others, like the utterly destroyed Pompeii, they lay in ruins forever, or like Chernobyl, become irradiated ghost towns. Such events stand as singular moments in history, like ruptures in time, shaking faith in religion, science, and government.
In the case of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which destroyed 80% of the city with its estimated magnitude of 7.9, the disaster also serves as a dire historical warning for what might happen again if seismologists’ current grim prognostications prove correct. In the film above, “A Trip Down Market Street” by the Miles brothers, we see the bustling city just four days before the quake. Film historian David Kiehn has dated this footage to April 14th, 1906. The very convincing sound design has been added by Mike Upchurch.
The film shows Market Street in full swing, Model T’s jostling with horsedrawn carriages over streetcar tracks, while pedestrians weave in and out of the traffic. The four Miles brothers, Harry, Herbert, Earle, and Joe, left for New York shortly after shooting in San Francisco and just missed the quake. They had sent the negatives ahead, barely saving this valuable footage. They returned to find their studios, and their city, destroyed by the quake and the nearly four days of fires that followed it. They did what any filmmaker would—started filming.
Their footage of the devastation was long thought lost until it was re-discovered at a flea market. Kiehn digitized the film and it was recently screened at the Bay Area Edison Theater while on its way to the Library of Congress, just before the 112th anniversary of the quake. The Miles brothers, says Kiehn, “shot almost two hours of film after the earthquake and very little of it survives. I think this is one of the longest surviving pieces.” It begins with a harrowing trip down Market Street, reduced from bustling city center to wasteland.
The quake, writes Bill Van Niekerken at the San Francisco Chronicle, caused “unfathomable devastation… At least 700 are thought to have perished, with some estimates at more than 3,000…. 490 city blocks were leveled, with 28,188 buildings destroyed. More than 200,000 people were left homeless.” From this horror, Niekerkan draws inspiration. “San Francisco, however, rose from the ashes, rebuilt and became a greater city, a shining symbol of the West.”
Perhaps the lesson, should scientists who forecast another major quake be right, is that the city can rebuild again. And in part because of the “wealth of scientific knowledge” seismologists gained from the 1906 quake, it is much better prepared for such a calamity.