SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 60 Minutes) — A film made more than a hundred years ago on Market Street, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare, shows in fascinating detail how people lived and traveled and dressed in what was then – as now – the Golden City of the American West.
The film is well known to historians. But who made it? And why? And most important, when? For a century, time, like the fog that blankets San Francisco, had shrouded the answers.
But now we know. The film is a time-traveler’s glimpse of a joyous city on the brink of disaster. Our trip into the past begins on a San Francisco streetcar built in 1895.
“It still comes out once in awhile and carries passengers down the main street. It looks just like a cable car because it was built by the people who built the cable cars,” Rick Laubscher of the Market Street Railway, told correspondent Morley Safer as they set off on a trolley ride.
The Market Street Railway is a non-profit group that keeps the city’s vintage trolleys rolling. “This is the main artery of San Francisco and always has been,” he told Safer.
Market Street is three miles long, 120 feet wide – the beating heart of the city since the days of the gold rush.
“This is where the original film started, right here about 8th Street,” Laubscher explained.
The black and white film makes the past come alive, thanks to a camera that was mounted on the front of a cable car a century ago, catching glimpses of fashion, faces, and the helter-skelter of city traffic – horses, trolley cars, and that new devil’s own invention, the motor car.
“You can see when people turn to look at the camera, it was really the shock of the new. Can you imagine? Here comes this contraption down the street with these guys hand cranking this camera furiously,” Laubscher said.
Others had made films of San Francisco, starting in the 1890s. But the cameraman of this film had the good sense to simply turn it on and leave it on.
“When you saw that film, what did you make of the people, the news boys, the cars, the horses, everything all happening at once right here on the tracks?” Safer asked.
“Yeah. I mean, you can see the people would circulate wildly. And they’re just kind of wandering across the street. You have these huge drays led by teamsters with four, sometimes eight horses hauling along,” Laubscher said.
“And it seems, watching the film, that there were absolutely no traffic rules,” Safer said, commenting on the traffic chaos the film captured.
“It seems like it. I mean, sort of, people, it was optional to stay to the right. But you know, it seemed to be honored in the breach. And there are people will tell you today that Market Street is still that way,” Laubscher said.
Looking back a century from the same spot on the same street is an eerie sight. Teddy Roosevelt was president then, life expectancy was 47 years for men, 50 for women, most of whom still couldn’t vote. No one – man, woman or child – went out without a hat.
The last few blocks of Market Street today are home to banks and brokers – “Wall Street West.” A century ago, it was the wholesale district, offering coffee, tea, and spices. It was a time when a decent salary was $400 a year.
“It’s left us an astonishing record, the likes of which we rarely see,” film archivist and historian Rick Prelinger told Safer.
Prelinger owns the clearest of the three surviving copies of the film. “This is over 100 years old, but the image quality is just absolutely excellent,” he said.
According to Prelinger, the film is extremely fragile.
The version excerpted on “60 Minutes” is a digitally restored, high definition copy, seen for the first time on television.
“What is it that moves us so when we see something like this?” Safer asked.
“It’s uncanny, first off, to see something that’s so old, in almost an alternate universe, really,” Prelinger said.
“I love when the little kid, in the carriage ahead of the streetcar and opens up that curtain and peeks out,” he added, commenting about a moment caught on film. “And then, at the very, very end, the streetcar turns around. And you have a glimpse of newsboys looking at the camera and waving, just for a few frames. It dazzles audiences. People applaud this film.”
The film ended at the Ferry Building on San Francisco Bay. The movie is a small gem about a much larger gem: this magnificent city on the hills.
It’s more than even that: it’s a mystery, a mystery quite literally ripped, as they say, from the headlines of the past.
“It just seemed like it was an important film that something must have been written about it someplace. And why not try to figure it out? I’m like that,” movie historian David Kiehn told Safer.
Kiehn is a man obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the Market Street film. He spent days, weeks and months at the San Francisco Library, scanning old newspapers for clues. Judging from the state of the construction on various buildings along the way, the Library of Congress had dated the film to September 1905.
Screening it over and over, Kiehn wasn’t so sure. “There’s some water between the tracks, there. Reflection,” he observed.
The film showed puddles from a recent rain. But the San Francisco newspapers from September 1905 showed no rain at all.
More clues came from the surprising number of cars: there were only a few thousand of them in the whole country in those days. And it appears the drivers on Market Street were recruited to fill up the screen, circling around the camera to make the city look more lively.
Kiehn was able to identify one of the cars captured on camera. “That’s J. Barry Anway, who was a chauffeur,” he explained.
Kiehn checked old car licenses and registration records and discovered the chauffeur’s car, number 4867, was registered in January 1906. Another one, number 5057, registered in February 1906, suggesting the film was made sometime after that.
Kiehn went back to the 1906 newspapers and found the following: “Starting around mid-March, and going to the end of the month, there was quite a bit of rain.”
Enough rain to account for the puddles, and to push the likely time the film was made into April 1906.
On April 18, 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake struck. It, and the subsequent fire, killed thousands.
“Was there a ‘Eureka!’ moment when you said, ‘Ah hah. It was not 1905. It was spring of 1906,’?” Safer asked.
“Well, certainly, seeing the New York Clipper articles, that was the, I think the defining moment,” Kiehn said
The New York Clipper was a showbiz paper where actors, jugglers, songwriters, and movie makers advertised their wares. It was also where Kiehn found a series of ads from the Miles brothers, filmmakers offering movie houses a travelogue called “A Trip Through Market Street.”
An ad was run on April 28, 1906, ten days after the quake: “We have the only pictures of any value ever made in San Francisco before the frightful catastrophe,” Kiehn read.
“So this strongly suggests that the film was made just before the earthquake?” Safer asked.
“Yeah. Well, it actually spells it out right here. This film was made just one week before the complete destruction of every building shown in the picture,” Kiehn said.
New research this summer confirmed that. Kiehn had stripped away the haze of history to show us the real story behind the trip through Market Street: San Francisco closing in on its rendezvous with catastrophe. The odds are that some of the people you see in the film had just days to live.
“When you look at that film, all you can think of is what was about to happen,” Safer remarked.
“Yes. When David Kiehn did his research and established that this was made within days before the earthquake, it takes on a power that is almost inconceivable because you can look at the buildings and know with certainty that almost all disappeared. You can look at the people on the street and wonder who survived. You’re watching a shade fall down over an era,” Rick Laubscher replied.
Among the buildings destroyed by the quake and fire: the offices of the Miles brothers; their film of San Francisco in happier days barely survived.
They had shipped it to New York by train just the night before the quake.
“Knowing that it was our relatives that did that. We were very proud,” Scott Miles told Safer.
Miles and his uncle Dwayne are descendants of Earl Miles, the man who supervised the filming.
They have one of his cameras and a family album of still pictures the Miles brothers took of the damage and the city’s refugees.
But they never knew the Miles brothers made the Market Street film until David Kiehn uncovered the story.
“David Kiehn just produced so much wonderful information for us. And we’re astounded,” Scott Miles told Safer.
“What is it about ‘The Trip Down Market Street,’ why do you think people are so moved by it?” Safer asked.
“I just see the people there. And they don’t know what’s about to hit them. And you can’t help but feel for them,” Miles replied.
“It’s just how vulnerable we are, you know? Like this is one week. And then a week later, you’re picking up everything off the ground,” Dwayne Miles added.
As for the man who figured it all out, he was armed only with a computer, the internet, and an incurable curiosity.
Kiehn understands well the strange power of images from the past. In the California town of Niles – a throwback itself to a gentler age – Kiehn runs a theater devoted to silent films. Charlie Chaplin himself made movies in Niles, and watched them in the very room.
On the night Safer was there, “A Trip Through Market Street” was the star attraction. “That’s the beauty of film. It captures something that nobody today has seen any more. It makes a connection. Young and old. They still react with amazement,” Kiehn said.
And 30 miles across San Francisco Bay, the Ferry Building still welcomes travelers. And Market Street, a century later, rolls on and on.
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