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San Francisco Four Days Before the 1906 Earthquake

Nearly all these structures and many of the people in view would be lost to one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of America, only four days after filming.

Historian David Kiehn was unable to find any historical reports of the filming in archives, so he revisited the footage and noticed some interesting details.

“I couldn’t find a thing, and that got me even more curious,” Kiehn told CBS’s 60 Minutes at the time. “So, I studied the film some more and noticed there were puddles of water on the ground. That indicated to me there must have been some recent rainfall … there was no rainfall in August or September in 1905 at all. Zero rainfall. I thought that was rather interesting. ”

Kiehn then realized that the angle of the shadows combined with the time may also occur in late March/early April. But the construction meant that it couldn’t have been the spring of 1905.

It must have been late March/early April 1906 — a time period more monumental than any other in San Francisco history.

Sure enough, some more digging led Kiehn to an advertisement from production company “The Miles Brothers” for a movie named “A Trip Down Market Street” around that time.

A story in the San Francisco Call on March 29, 1906, reports that the brothers, Harry and Joseph Miles, were seeking permission to shoot Market Street, “one of the greatest streets in the world, and they propose to have the world learn of its magnificence.”

They also sought the use of a cable car to mount their equipment, as the vibratory motion on an automobile, which they previously attempted, is “so severe that the films are blurred and print indistinctly.”

Permission was granted by the city and the film was made on a busy San Francisco day, April 14, 1906, four days before the earthquake and fire would destroy nearly everything seen in the film, (except the iconic Ferry Building which somehow survived the destruction.)

The advertisement for the film published in the New York Clipper on April 28 stated that the footage had been shot “just one week before the complete destruction of every building shown in the picture.”

But how did the film survive the fire that destroyed 80% of San Francisco? The Miles Brothers, the first movie company in San Francisco, also had an office in New York. Harry and Joseph fortuitously boarded a train with the developed negative three days after the shoot on April 17, saving the iconic film from the destruction that leveled their San Francisco studio on Market Street the morning after they left.

In 2020, a film restoration tech company, Neural.Love brought the video to life. Exhaustive methods using machine learning and artificial intelligence to colorize and sharpen old movies transformed the scene into the smooth 60-frames-per-second, vivid cityscape below.

And while the street at first appears to be filled with traffic, as bicycles, horse carts, and motor cars cut each other off, closer inspection reveals some filmmaking trickery by the Miles brothers — one of the motor cars circles the camera 10 times.

“Today we will time travel to San Francisco in April of 1906,” Neural.Love’s Denis Shiryaev, says over the opening of the footage. “Have a nice time travel experience.”

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