Old San Francisco, just before the 1906 earthquake: See vintage film footage from weeks before the disaster

Old San Francisco, just before the 1906 earthquake

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Accidentally historic: See ‘A Trip Down Market Street,’ filmed just before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake & fire

In 1906, a company made a movie called ‘A Trip Down Market Street’ to promote tourism in San Francisco — and ended up with something far more valuable: a record of the area before the huge earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city just a few weeks later. Take a look back here!

The Miles Brothers, filmmakers who created this blast from the past, started the project as a simple promotional movie, with the goal to show people on the East Coast and abroad how beautiful the city of San Francisco was.

On its own, the found footage offers a fascinating little peek into life more than 100 years ago — in the days where automobiles were still new, and things like paved streets, road lines, stop signs and traffic signals were not yet in play.

But it’s in the larger historical context that this short film really shines. Based on a newspaper article (shown below) as well as extensive research cross-checking the weather patterns and the position of the sun relative to the city, it was determined that this footage was shot at the end of March 1906 — less than three weeks before the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (See more about that here.)

In other words, this is the last known complete record of the area as it was just before so much of the city was destroyed.

As a newspaper reported immediately after the disaster: “Market Street, which has been the pride of San Francisco since 1849, is simply one black mass of ruin. It is estimated that up to the present time, the fire and earthquake have done at least $150,000,000 worth of damage to this thoroughfare alone.” (Scroll down to see photo of the aftermath.)

Among the structures completely destroyed? The Miles Brothers’ San Francisco office — as shown at the bottom of the page.

In fact, this movie footage reportedly survived only because the original had already been sent back east for processing. And that little stroke of luck gives us the chance to take a little trip back in time to the beautiful city by the bay, as it looked in the good old days.

San Francisco 1906 - A Trip Down Market Street (3)

Photographs of Market Street in Old San Francisco: Miles Brothers would show moving pictures in the east

From The San Francisco Call – Thursday, March 29, 1906

Miles Brothers yesterday asked permission of the United Railroads for the use of a streetcar one day this week in order to obtain moving pictures of Market Street.

It is the purpose of the picture men to exhibit these pictures throughout the eastern cities of the United States and also throughout Europe. General Manager Chapman of the United Railroads took the matter under advisement with a promise to give his answer soon.

Miles Brothers declare that the pictures they desire to take will greatly benefit San Francisco in particular and California as a whole. They wish to take pictures of other cities on the coast as well and to show them.

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They have tried to take them from the front end of an automobile, but the vibratory motion is so severe that the films are blurred, and so print indistinctly.

Miles Brothers say that San Francisco has been painted by writers as a beautiful city, but that few pictures of its beauties have circulated over the world. They say that the few pictures now on exhibition are mostly of Chinatown and of the Italian quarter.

Market Street is, they say, one of the greatest streets in the world, and they propose to have the world learn of its magnificence.

Market Street less than a month later, after the fire

This photo was taken looking back down Market from the Ferry Building (the cable car’s location at the end of the video). Therefore, this is what happened three weeks later, and how it affected the area of old San Francisco shown in the movie footage.

Market St. from Ferry UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library - San Francisco 1906

Map of old San Francisco from 1905: Market Street is the diagonal line through the middle

The movie started around the bottom left corner, and moved up the road until it ended up at the Ferry building on the upper right (on this vintage map, it’s marked DEPOT).

Map of San Francisco from 1905 Market Street is the diagonal line through the middle

Old San Francisco: Scene-by-scene of the film, A Trip Down Market Street

Text from Archive.org, via the US Library of Congress. (Please note that the route may not exactly match the footage above, as we used the full-length of the most recent complete scan as of 2019, courtesy of the Prelinger Archives.)

Produced as part of the popular Hale’s Tours of the World film series, the film begins at the location of the Miles Brothers film studio, 1139 Market Street, between 8th and 9th Streets…

Begins by looking northeast on Market Street just west of the intersection of Hyde, Grove and 8th streets. The dark building at right is the Odd Fellows Hall and the grey building beyond (across 8th St.) is the Grant Building. A white postal service automobile is at left center.

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The three large buildings receding down Market Street at left are the Murphy Building, the Donohoe Building, and the Flood Building. The distant tower of the Call Building is at center right. Roadwork is underway at far left, and a city water wagon is at right.

After a break in continuity, the film jumps ahead one block and approaches the intersection of Taylor St. and Golden Gate Ave. on the left. The view includes the prominent Flood Building on the left, the distant Ferry Building in the center, the domed Call Building at right center, and the Emporium department store with the white side wall, on the right.

The cut masonry facade at right, beyond 6th, is Hale Brothers Dry Goods. A street sweeper is at work on the right.

San Francisco 1906 - A Trip Down Market Street (4)

The column at left is the Native Sons Monument at the Mason/Turk Streets intersection. As a lady boards a cable car, a man gets off and crosses Market Street carrying a baby. (56 sec.) At left, one of the downtown home-bound cable car commuter “islands” comes into view.

Next, the entry awning of the Emporium department store appears on the right, while beyond, the California Academy of Sciences Building and the old Flood Building. A pedestrian dodges traffic at center as a businessman boards a cable car. A group of young women await a cable car.

On the left, the “flatiron” Phelan Building is largely in shadow and beyond, at the Kearny/Geary streets intersection are the double-blank rear wall of the Mutual Savings Bank and the dark Chronicle Building.

As the camera approaches the Stockton/Ellis Street intersections, a shuttered electric streetcar crosses from Ellis Street.

The next two blocks are the busiest portion of Market Street, with the main business district extending along the streets to the left (north).

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A policeman and a lady dressed in white are seen at right before a jumble of Victorian facades between 4th and 3rd streets, and at center, a father and sailor-suited son appear. (2:21 min.) Beyond them is a commuter who raises a hand hoping to stop the cable car.

As the camera approaches the Kearny/Geary Street intersection, several buildings come into view.

At left, the Mutual Savings Bank and, across Kearny, the Chronicle (newspaper) Building and the rear of the Crocker Building. In the distance at the center is the Ferry Building, and closer in, the row of repeated bays is the great Palace Hotel.

Next to the hotel is the unfinished Monadnock Building and the white-walled Hearst (Examiner newspaper) Building at the corner of 3rd Street. At the far right, (on the near side of 3rd Street) is the columned entry of the Call (newspaper) Building.

Ahead, an electric streetcar crosses the very busy intersection from Kearny to 3rd Street. (3:21 min.)

At right is a wooden structure built to protect pedestrians beneath the unfinished Monadnock Building. An electric sightseeing streetcar crosses to Kearny Street. (4:58)

At left, in shadow, is the Crocker Building and beyond (across the Montgomery/Post Streets intersection) is the Union Trust Bank. Approaching the Montgomery/Post Streets and New Montgomery Street intersection the Union Trust Bank and Hobart Building are seen at left, while on the right is the Grand Hotel.

San Francisco 1906 - A Trip Down Market Street (2)

Having passed through the heart of downtown, the camera approaches the Sansome/Sutter Streets intersection.

Next comes San Francisco’s wholesale district, where coffee, tea, and spice companies, as well as various light industrial businesses, were located.

Next is the Battery/Bush Streets and 1st Street intersection. From here to the Ferry Building is filled land in the former Yerba Buena Cove of gold rush days. At right is the Sheldon Building. The spired building on the left is the McColl Building, located at the Davis and Pine streets intersection.

A lady in a white-feathered hat boards a cable car. (7:59 min.) The turreted O’Brien Building at right is at the corner of Fremont Street. The Ferry Building clock reads 3:17.

The camera approaches East Street (today called the Embarcadero) and the Ferry Building cable car turntable. A People’s Express van crosses in front. (10:49)

The cable car has reached the end of the line. The Ferry Building cornerstone reads, “Erected 1896 by the Board of the State Harbor Commission.”

The car turns on the turntable, panning across the north section of East Street.

MORE: If you love San Francisco, don’t miss this ’50s video blast from the past

San Francisco 1906 - A Trip Down Market Street (1)

About this video

The original footage shown here was filmed on Market Street in San Francisco, at the end of March 1906. It was recorded by filmmakers the Miles Brothers, who got these shots by attaching the camera to a cable car.

Just a few weeks later, on April 18, much of the city would be destroyed by the huge 1906 earthquake & fire. It is the last known video record of the city as it stood before the quake.

Here is the Miles Brothers’ shop after the fire:

Miles Brothers photo lab - San Francisco 1906 - after earthquake

Video & page credits: Original movie footage by The Miles Brothers (1906). Restored footage courtesy of the Prelinger Archives. Other audio & visual sources: US Library of Congress, UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library, National Archives, Lumen5, Archive.org, Freepik, Deposit Photos, Orange Free Sounds

Video music: Frédéric Chopin’s Op 18 Grande Valse Brillante E flat major, Op 34 1 A flat major & KK IVb No. 10 Waltz in E flat major.

SF before 1906 earthquake fire

MORE: 1906 San Francisco earthquake: Rare pictures & first reports made while the fires were still burning the city

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