San Francisco before the Great Earthquake of 1906 was a lively city, to say the least. We are lucky to have a moving picture of it from a camera hand-cranked by filmmaker Harry Miles. His Bell & Howell was on a cable car headed down the city’s main street at 10 miles per hour.
The film runs just under 12 minutes, but seems like an eternity, as, in a way, it is.
The film was dated by the Library of Congress at September 1905, but silent-film historian David Kiehn grew suspicious of puddles in the street at a time when newspapers reported no rain for weeks. Tracking the registration of license plates on cars in the film and the angles of shadows cast by the sun, Kiehn pinpointed the date of the filming — not seven months but just four days before the earthquake.
That adds even more poignancy to the sight, a century later, of citizens going about their business on a sunny day, unaware of the shadow descending upon their lives. The film negatives were put on a train to New York the night before the quake, which destroyed the Miles Brothers’ film studio on Market.
To read the rest of this column, please visit The Providence Journal.