Friday, April 29, 2011

Amazing video of San Francisco, shot just days before the 1906 earthquake

This story is a couple of years old, but I just ran across it. I think it's one of the most beautiful videos I've ever seen, and I was incredibly moved while watching it. It connects me with the history of San Francisco in a way that I've never felt before. I wonder about all of the people walking Market Street, most unaware that they are being recorded. Who is the little boy who pops his head out of the car? Where did he live? What was his experience of the earthquake just days later? Did he live to tell his grandchildren about the days of horses and carriages on Market Street and the great earthquake and fire of 1906?

The story behind it -- that it was made just days before the 1906 earthquake -- makes it even more special. And the other story behind it -- how historians determined that it was in fact filmed in April 1906 -- is also extremely interesting. Enjoy, and I hope you fall in love with San Francisco even more deeply.

Here's more information on David Kiehn's incredible sleuthing from the SFGate Blog:

The film was shot by early San Francisco film innovators the Miles Brothers and has been widely available through the Library of Congress and You Tube (which has a novel version set to an Air soundtrack) and was originally dated to the fall of 1905 but recently local author and silent film historian David Kiehn made some surprising discoveries about its date. He had seen "A Trip Down Market Street" many times over the years but it was only around 2005 that he managed to get ahold of a 16mm print which made him "all the more curious about it." The Library of Congress had researched and dated the filming to September or October of 1905. Per Kiehn, "some thought it was shot earlier in 1904 but since the Library of Congress had narrowed it down to that point everyone thought that it was shot in 1905." Read the Library of Congress' description of the film's date here.

At first Kiehn was just trying to confirm the 1905 shoot date so he thought "gee, there were 5 newspapers in San Francisco at that time so somebody must have written about it." He dug through the San Francisco Public Library's collection of microfilm starting with August of 1905 and running through October 1905. He went "page by page and couldn't find a single thing about it so I looked at the film again more closely and I noticed that there were puddles in the cavities by the rails on the street and especially at the end of the film autos drive through puddles splashing water." So, he went back to the papers and checked the weather reports for the period only to find that September and October of 1905 were "as dry as a bone."

Kiehn took a look at the angle of the sun and narrowed the time of year to late March or April 1906. Then he examined the buildings along Market Street, the state of construction narrowed the window down to late 1905 or before the earthquake in 1906. To tie all these pieces together he "went back to the papers to look for information on filming and weather reports. In March and April, especially late March 1906, there was a lot of rain but there weren't any references to any filming being done." But, "being a film historian I then realized that there was a theatrical magazine where filmmakers of the day advertised their films called the New York Clipper. The San Francisco Public Library coincidentally has that magazine on microfilm so I looked at late March and April of 1906."

In the April 28th edition he saw an ad by the Miles Brothers for two films that they were just releasing called "A Trip down Mount Tamalpais" and "A Trip down Market Street." The ad appeared ten days after the April 18, 1906 earthquake but Kiehn notes that this wasn't someone playing games with history. Since print publications required a long lead time for composition it was most likely composed by April 18th, 1906. The films were shot on or around April 12th and shipped to New York on April 17th, the eve of the quake.

That would appear to confirm the date for the film but Kiehn dug deeper by dating the early license plates on cars in the film. The DMV told him that the records no longer existed but he found them in the California State Archives in Sacramento. He eventually found one of the plate numbers from the film, 4867, and traced it to a Jay Anway who registered his car in early 1906 which further verified his research.

There are many other twists and turns along the way to confirming the film's date. Kiehn has written up the entire tale in the most recent issue of the Argonaut.

Kiehn has managed to get the IMDB to change their date for the film but the Library of Congress hasn't updated theirs yet. He hopes they'll come around soon.

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