Monday 9 December 2013

Frisco before the Quake

A frame of the historic footage of Market Street in 1906
by Caroline Lawrence

One thing that fascinates us about the tragedy of Pompeii is how quickly disaster struck. From archaeological evidence we know that people were cooking, shopping, buying, selling and redecorating their houses right up to the moment Vesuvius erupted.

Recently I came across a piece of San Francisco history that aroused the same poignant emotions in me. The film reminded me of how life can turn to tragedy within the space of hours.

In researching my latest P.K. Pinkerton book I discovered that for a short space of time in the 1860s a steam train disguised as an omnibus traveled up and down Market Street, San Francisco’s great thoroughfare. While searching for photos of this rare conveyance, I stumbled across footage of Market Street shot in 1906. The eleven-minute clip is an amazing glimpse into life over a century ago.

Watch it once. Then read what I’ve written below.
On first viewing you will be struck by the how lively and crowded the scene is. We see men, women and children. There are policemen, paperboys, businessmen, teamsters, even a Chinese street sweeper. Many of the people are on foot. All of them without exception wear hats. Some ride bicycle or horses. Others step up on to cable cars or glance at us from carts. Teenage boys play ‘chicken’ with the cable car on which the camera is mounted. Horse-drawn carriages, carts, drays and omnibuses pass in and out of view. There are cable cars (pulled by an invisible steel cable below the tracks) and automobiles so old they still have right-hand drive.  

You see street signs, street lights, advertisements, flags, the muddy thoroughfare and buildings, including the famous Ferry Building looming at the end of the line. Another thing that strikes you on first viewing is the wild and wacky driving. Horses and carriages come from out of nowhere, pedestrians dice with death and half the automobiles seem to veer rashly in front of the cable car.

Now watch it again, using all your powers of observation. This time you might notice it is the same three or four cars driving in front of the camera, disappearing out of right screen, cutting across from right to left, then reappearing in front of the camera once again. Were these San Franciscans trying to grab their moment of fame by circling the camera? Probably not. The American documentary 60 Minutes (below) suggests chauffeurs and car-owners were hired to drive along Market Street and make it seem busier than it really was.

Knowing this doesn’t make the crazy traffic any less amusing, especially when you see some of the bolder paperboys jumping up onto the back of a car to hitch a ride.

For many years, the library of Congress dated the film to September 1905, six months before the great earthquake. But after hours of meticulous research, movie detective David Kiehn figured out that it was actually filmed only a week before the great earthquake. Even more astonishing is the fact that the film was shipped to New York the very night before the quake. If it had stayed in the offices of the filmmakers just another day it would have been lost forever.

1906 is the infamous date known to all those who grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area. On April 18th a terrible earthquake struck. This quake and the resulting fire devastated San Francisco. Chances are that many of the people you see in this film were lost in that tragic event. The last three minutes of this film clip (above) shows the devastation. So when you watch these films just think what a privilege it is to glimpse a joyous city only days before disaster struck. It also reminds us to be grateful for every day and carpe diem! (Seize the day)

P.S. Never call it 'Frisco'. Only out-of-towners and tourists call it that. Or bloggers looking for a pithy title.

Caroline Lawrence is author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mysteries Scrolls and the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Find out more HERE


Petrea Burchard said...

Fantastic footage! I'm fairly familiar with San Francisco and both trips up Market Street are unforgettable.

Joan Lennon said...

These are fascinating - thank you!

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow - utterly fascinating and - from our future viewpoint - poignant. Thanks!

Katherine Langrish said...
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michelle lovric said...

very moving pictures of the devastation. When did men stop wearing hats? The art I use for historical reference shows hats well into the twentieth century. Is it not a pity that men have ceased to have something to doff?

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating, Caroline. Thank you for posting this incredible footage.

Jean Bull said...

Thank you, Caroline, I enjoyed my trip back in time. It was well worth the effort to sit and watch the films. What stories all those people could tell. Wonderful to see cars, horses, and pedestrians weaving in and out of the trams. My great uncle settled in San Francisco at that time, I wonder if he was in it?