Pre-Earthquake: San Francisco in 1906

Thanks to the creative ideas of four early filmmakers, later generations have the chance to see San Francisco in early 1906, before the now famous Earthquake decimated the city.

Early video pioneers Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe Miles put together the film. Harry J. Miles manually operated the Bell & Howell camera on the front of a streetcar during its trip down Market Street.

According to Wikipedia:

“A virtual time capsule from over 100 years ago, the film shows many details of daily life in a major American city, including the transportation, fashions and architecture of the era.”


When the film was re-discovered, original estimates as to the date of production were sometime in 1905. Later research found a closer estimate to be spring of 1906, although the Library of Congress still recognizes the original estimated date of 1905.

Several copies of San Francisco in 1906 still exist in 35mm print – both at the Library of Congress and the Prelinger Archives.

In 2010 the San Francisco in 1906 film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.



  1. That’s fascinating. The chaos of the street..

    And also makes me think about that problem of the digital age: what will we leave behind like this? Somebody found this film and managed to restore it because it’s a physical medium – anybody can pick it up, hold it to the light, and see what’s on it. But one hundred years from now, will there be many videos of life in the early 21st century for people to view, despite so many being taken..?

    I actually doubt it. I think we could end up in a situation, 1000 years from now, where historians know more about the year 1900 than the year 2000.

    • Great observation Guy. I don’t know if you’re seen “Life After People” (TV show, U.S.), but in one episode they point out how all our digital content created will likely disappear if the mediums used to view & store them go away. Not to mention the places our digital information is stored would not be protected from destruction over time themselves.

      What if the future life form or species that finds our artifacts don’t have a similar computer system? Finding a painting would probably reveal more about us than finding a USB thumb drive. And let’s face it, if we’re gone the “cloud” would likely be gone as well. All just conjecture however… If it gets to this point I’m sure you and I will be carbon by then. 😉

      • We will likely be carbon by that time so it probably won’t directly concern us, but I still think it’s a strange side-effect of the digital age: we have more information available than any age before us, but it has the potential to be dangerously ephemeral. Even small stuff: I sometimes think what I would do if Google deleted all Blogger blogs, including mine. All that stuff suddenly unavailable; a part of me suddenly vanished? Given that, I think it would be naive to think that people’s grumpy cat videos will still be available 100 years from now (which may of course be seen as somewhat of a benefit, but also gives future historians less evidence that we were living in the most insane period of human history thus far).

        A painting will last much longer than the USB drive. As a photographer whose photographers are nearly all stored exclusively digitally, that’s disconcerting.

        I’ll check out that documentary. I’ve heard about it, and have always meant to watch it.

        • Great points. Don’t forget about dilution of content, either. All the instagram photos of what fast food people are eating, Facebook status updates, Tinder, etc – this all creates bytes of information which take up hard drive space somewhere. The more of that type of content, the harder it would be for future beings to sift through the noise.

          Remember the Rosetta Stone? Thankfully there was only one. Can you imagine if we had 5 million Rosetta Stones to decipher, and it turns out each one is just a shepherd talking about his flock, or something unspectacular? After deciphering so many you’d give up assuming they’re all inconsequential.

          I’m picturing a USB key with a thousand documents on it. 999 personal diary entries and one is a copy & paste of the Treaty of Versailles. That kind of thing.

          • Yes. Very good point.

            And now I am imagining a utopia/dystopia of the future human society where heuristic capable computers have taken over the work of human historians in sifting through the billions of terabytes of data, deciding what is relevant and what is not. And that’s not a trivial question of course, because often it’s the “trivial” stuff that is just as important and interesting as the big stuff. I mean, yeah, sure, Norman invasion, 1066. Excellent, good job. But exactly what was the diet of the typical Norman knight and was this instrumental in their victory?

            I’m thinking that a very powerful and intelligent computer might make quite a good historian. (And at the same time I’m skeptical that we will ever develop such a machine.)

  2. I just saw this movie for the first time last week while visiting the Railway Museum in downtown San Francisco. The interesting thing about the movie was that it showed numerous cars, but in actuality it was the same handful of cars being shown over and over; they would simply turn around and come back into view again. At that point, San Francisco had only about 200 cars in all.

    It’s rather staggering to see the chaotic condition of street traffic, with all the different conveyances, in addition to people moving in between. How more people were trampled or run down I don’t know.

    Thanks for posting this online.

    • Thanks for the comment CBC! That’s good information, and a bit funny. Not surprising. It’s impressive how our driving habits have changed, I wonder how much of that process was accelerated by Eisenhour and the Interstate System?

  3. I live in San Francisco and walk to work on Market St. – towards the same Ferry Building every weekday.

    It’s changed quite a bit, but now that I’ve seen the film, I can’t help but to imagine the ghosts of the past scurrying around me every day.

    Thanks for the wonderful insight.

  4. What I wonder about after watching the film is how and when did we go from that (the seeming chaos of pedestrian and wheeled traffic) to the more orderly and structured streets of today. Was it when the horse-drawn carriage went away? Was it streetlights and traffic signals? All the near-misses and clueless pedestrians in that movie give me a case of the fantods.

    • How were there not more pedestrian fatalities? Maybe there were plenty and we just didn’t hear about them… Funny you mention that as it’s what I took away as well. It would be extremely difficult to choreograph this movement, and in the film it happens seamlessly and largely without incident. It really is something else.

  5. I was amazed at the Chaos! Being an avid history reader it’s definitely described in books, but to actually SEE it puts a different perspective on it. I just think about all of the people who stood in front of the camera, or waved ,or ran past. Did they make it through the earthquake? How long did they live – how much change did they see? Just amazing…

    • Wow, great point. Watching the video again knowing many of those people might have perished in the earthquake just days later really alters the perspective. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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