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Rare 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Footage Found at Flea Market

The nine-minute Miles brothers film reel shows the devastation that the powerful quake wrought

smithsonian.com

The April 18, 1906, earthquake that leveled much of San Francisco is one of the biggest natural disasters in American history. But taking place a century before smart phones and decades before point-and-shoot photography, there is not a lot of high-quality photographic or film footage documenting the quake and its aftermath. While historians know that the early movie makers known as the Miles brothers captured some two hours of film footage showing the quake's devastation, most of the shooting (done on fragile nitrate film) remains lost. Recently, however, a reel of almost nine minutes was discovered at a flea market, reports Amy Graff at SFGate.com.

Graff reports that the Miles brothers are best known for a 13-minute film called  “A Trip Down Market Street,” a piece shot several days before the earthquake from a cable car. The film shows bustling scenes of buildings, crowds, early cars and horse-drawn buggies. The new footage, in contrast, is a grim reversal of that footage, capturing the devastation of the aftermath, including a shot of the collapsed city hall.

“Miles brothers footage shot after the earthquake is extremely difficult to find,” film historian David Kiehn tells Graff. Keihn confirmed the origin of the film and spent eight months digitizing it. “They shot more footage than anyone else after the earthquake, almost 7,000 feet of it," he says. "This nine-minute piece is the biggest segment that I’ve seen anywhere."

Brandon Specktor at LiveScience reports that the film was first spotted by photography collector David Silver being sold from the trunk of a car at a flea market. Silver learned more about the footage by posting it on the Facebook group "San Francisco Remembered." It was there that photography historian Jason Wright heard about the footage. He acquired it from Silver and then got in touch with Kiehn, who was able to establish the provenance of the film and begin the restoration process.

According to History.com, the 1906 earthquake occurred at 5:13 A.M. The powerful temblor took out 28,000 buildings, killed 3,000 people and left 250,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents homeless. Much of the $500 million in damage that took place was caused by fires that erupted in the aftermath of the quake.

Despite the devastation, the quake made San Fran the city it is today. After its downtown was leveled, the city developed a strategic urban plan to rebuild, replacing what was previously random development that was erected during the Gold Rush era. The devastation also sent many people to surrounding communities during the recovery, redistributing the city's population across the Bay Area.

Graff reports that the new footage will premier on April 14 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California.

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