Dramatic Footage of San Francisco Right Before & After the Massively Devastating Earthquake of 1906

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Life on the Streets of Tokyo in Footage Record­ed in 1913: Caught Between the Tra­di­tion­al and the Mod­ern

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

Lon­don in Vivid Col­or 125 Years Ago: See Trafal­gar Square, the British Muse­um, Tow­er Bridge & Oth­er Famous Land­marks in Pho­tocrom Prints

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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