San Francisco, 1906

A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire
P: Miles Brothers. USA 1905/06

“The earthquake scenes, while spectacular, are essentially reportorial. But the early movies photographed with no knowledge of the approaching calamity, in addition to being rare, have a special significance and poignancy. On one level they document how the buildings, streets, and people looked. The detailed notes provided include this information (along with some fascinating speculation) and reveal just how much can be discerned by a meticulous and knowledgeable viewer. On another level these hazy, grainy images bring to life a time and place even further removed from us than the ninety or so years would suggest, a time and place buried under a layer of ash, soot, and crumbled brick.
Just looking at the subjects of the films can be revealing, though most are typical of the actuality genre. Filmed in 1905 and obviously re-titled after the disaster, A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire showcases downtown San Francisco along the great boulevard. To emphasize this (and no doubt to add to the visual excitement of the scene) the producers had the same few automobiles circle the cable car-mounted camera as it proceeded toward the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.”
Library of Congress

San Francisco earthquake and fire, April 18, 1906
P:  Lubin Film Company.  USA 1906

“This film shows the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, and the devastation resulting from the subsequent three-day fire. The 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck at 5:12am and was centered along the San Andreas Fault, which slices through coastal California. Most of the cities of central California were badly damaged. San Francisco, with thousands of unreinforced brick buildings – and thousands more closely-spaced wooden Victorian dwellings – was poorly prepared for a major fire. Collapsed buildings, broken chimneys, and a shortage of water due to broken mains led to several large fires that soon coalesced into a city-wide holocaust. The fire swept over nearly a quarter of the city, including the entire downtown area. Dynamite was used with varying success to prevent the fire from spreading westward. Over 3,000 people are now estimated to have died as a result of the disaster. For the surviving refugees, the first few weeks were hard; as aid poured in from around the country, thousands slept in tents in city parks, and all citizens were asked to do their cooking in the street. A severe shortage of public transportation made a taxicab out of anything on wheels. Numerous businesses relocated temporarily in Oakland and many refugees found lodgings outside the city. Reconstruction of the city proceeded at a furious pace and by 1908, San Francisco was well on the way to recovery. The scenes in the film are preceded by titles, many of which are sensationalized. One entire scene showing a family eating in the street was almost certainly staged for the camera. The film was probably made in early May, as one scene can be precisely dated to May 9, and another to sometime after May 1.”
Library of Congress

San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906
Producer unknown. USA 1906

“This film is made up of five panoramas, four wide and one close-up, of the ruins of downtown San Francisco shortly after the 1906 disaster, plus a panorama and scene in a nearby refugee camp. Original intertitles precede each change of scene, but the locations provided are incorrect for three of the five views. The state of the ruins and camp suggest a date in late April, 1906. The absence of streetcar tracks in the ‘Grand Avenue’ panorama dates that segment to before May 1, 1906.”
Library of Congress

Ruins of Chinatown
K: Robert K. Bonine. P: Edison Co. USA 1906

Vertical Panorama City Hall and Surroundings
K: Robert K. Bonine. P: Edison Co. USA 1906

Robert K. Bonine, the Edison company’s actuality cameraman, took thirteen panoramas of the devastation of the April, 1906 earthquake which were offered for sale later that year. The 1906 Edison catalog lists all the films with additional short descriptions and information on specific location, etc.

Further reading: The Brothers Who Filmed the Earthquake

>>> San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake: Disasters