San Francisco before the great fire: rare, public domain 1906 video

Video archivist extraordinaire Rick Prelinger sez, "A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET BEFORE THE FIRE is that charismatic archival film made by San Francisco's Miles Bros. several days before the April 18, 1906 quake/fire. Millions of people have seen the Air music video (made from a visually degraded version of the film), but until now nobody's had access to a editable DV file. Here it is (warning: 2.3GB). Please make of it what you will, and consider uploading your work to Internet Archive!"

Miles BrothersTrip Down Market Street Before the Fire, A (DV25 version) (1906/04/15) (Thanks, footage, via Submitterator!)



  1. Awesome film!

    But as was pointed out to me, I will point out to y’all:

    The cars repeat. Somebody has arranged to have the same cars drive around and around the camera to make it look like there are more cars.

    Sometimes you can just watch them pull over and then pass the camera again a second later.

  2. I’m sure this has been on BB before – a version with a commentary from the person who restored the film.

    1. There are a handful of earthquake survivors left… like maybe half a dozen. Probably none were in that film, though.

    2. I was just thinking the same thing. When is the last time you watched a video and thought “every single person in this video is dead.” Crazy.

    3. Yeah thought exactly the same and yes, they have a certain immortality through this short piece of film.

      Amazing to see such a long shot, watched it over and over again.

  3. Great film. It was interesting to see how the wagon wheels exactly matched the rails for the street cars and to see bicycles, cars, horse drawn wagons and carriages, electric street cars and horse drawn street cars all driving down the same street. Traffic laws must have been very casually enforced if enforced at all. I was surprised to see so many horses but so few people riding them. I guess a carriage or a wagon is more comfortable than the back of a horse. It was annoying to me as a woman to see the ridiculousness of women having to live their lives dragging around long skirts. They seemed crippling. Though high heels serve the same function today. It’s sad to wonder how many of those people died a few days later or, at least, had their lives disrupted by tragedy.

    1. It was interesting to see how the wagon wheels exactly matched the rails for the street cars

      No accident, that. Check out this informative Wikipedia paragraph on how the width of “standard gauge” railways match the pretty standardized 4’8″ of wagon wheel spacing going clear back to the Bronze Age.

  4. I’m not sure I’d make a good time traveler. I kept wanting to warn these people to get out of the city, just grab your family and the dog and take the ferry to Marin. It’s a really weird experience seeing these people going about their lives and knowing what’s going to happen in just a few days.

  5. So cool! It’s insightful to see how the accepted norms of today have not always been norms.

    For instance, streets are not just for cars as they are today. Pedestrians are in the streets everywhere. A street is a public space shared by cars, horses, pedestrians, cable-cars, and street cars. Of course very few of those are traveling at more than a quick jog; still, people seem comfortable if a bit wary to stand in the middle of the street and jump on a passing street car.

    The cable cars don’t seem to come to a complete stop. People board and dismount while it is moving. The assumption here seems to be if you fall and lose a leg it’s your own damn fault. It’s obviously a big dangerous piece of equipment and you are responsible for your own health. Contrast that today where if a kid falls off a sidewalk the parents would sue about a dozen different individuals and agencies for creating a dangerous environment.

    Most of all though I was struck by the bustle and health of Market Street. Today it seems to me to be a cold and dreary place. Yesterday it was filled with life and commerce. What’s changed? The sun. Today’s high-rises make much a Market a freezing, dark wind tunnel. It doesn’t seem alive anymore.

    1. Lest we get too nostalgic, it’s worth noting that rate of urban traffic-related deaths for both pedestrians and motorists is a fraction of what it was in 1906.

  6. What’s interesting about the footage is how much more free people were then. Well, aside from gender & minority civil rights, folks kinda did as they pleased.

  7. Huh, I never realised that they had cable cars (pulled by a cable under the street) running down Market. I assumed they were just electric trolleys, like the ones running today. At several points in the film you see overhead lines crossing the track, and near the ferry building at the end you see both kinds of line running parallel.

    It’s not just the skyscrapers that sucked the life out of Market. It’s easy to forget that before the last big earthquake there was a two-level freeway running along the Embarcadero–hardly conducive to pedestrian-friendly streets. The city is slowly shifting back away from cars but it’ll take a while to recover.

  8. It would appear that this is the SF that existed before the existence of traffic signals, lights, or any signage directed at the drivers, whether advertising or Official in nature.

  9. Sublime. By the way, anyone have an idea what kind of vehicle the camera was traveling in? In one scene a car cuts across traffic close to the camera so I am inclined to say cable car.

  10. It’s compelling and riveting and amazing for sure, but there’s been debate as to whether this footage indeed predates the 1906 earthquake with some arguing that given the number of automobiles and some of their styles it was more likely made in the teens after the city was rebuilt. It just seems amazingly coincidental and very urban legend-y how the undeveloped stock just happened to have been filmed days before the disaster and survived only by having been transported out of the city before it all fell down.

    1. Coincidence? No, it was obviously the work of The Company. Dr. Zeus Incorporated saw to the preservation of many artifacts and “lost” treasures in that quake.

      Seriously though, was I the only one looking for Victor or Budu among the pedestrians?

  11. I watched the postage-stamp-sized version on the Prelinger site years ago.

    This restored version is just as eerie; a dream-vision of a lost world inadvertently transmitted to the future.

  12. This may have been posted before but I don’t think it was to this *exact* file which is a large format editable file suitable for remix.

  13. Google streetview will be this at some point. And you’ll be able to choose the year from the past you want to see.

    Google should incorporate these views into the SF map now, even if they aren’t panoramic.

  14. Surprised at the number of cars, actually. What really struck me was that everyone looks really fit and thin. Really striking if you think about it. The big wagons carrying freight, low to the ground, was interesting also. Street cars where the biggest things on the street.

  15. One way to date the film is to check the makes of the cars. The Ford Model T was introduced in 1908. If this was actually shot in the teens, then you’d expect that one or more of the cars going by would be a Model T, what with it being such a popular make of automobile. To my untrained eye, none of the cars I noted looked like a Model T, so I’m going to have to go with pre-1908 for the shooting date.

  16. I ran this footage at the beginning of my lecture on Urban Life in America, 1870-1910, for my US History college class this semester. My students were enthralled by it.

  17. It’s too bad they didn’t record the sound. Watching this without the ever-present ragtime piano that seemed to suffuse the outdoors back then makes this feel less real!

  18. I read somewhere that in the early 20th century there were specialized cinemas that ‘simulated’ tram trips. The spectators would sit in tram frames and the movie would be projected in front of them.

    Here’s a similar video of Barcelona in 1908, made for this kind of shows.

    1. I was thinking “It’s Fun To Be Free” from the late ‘World of Motion’ at Epcot

  19. Can anyone with San Francisco experience tell us what stretch of Market this is on? I”m actually there right now at a conference, and wonder if this is where I”m walking every day on the way to the Moscone.

      1. ikoino: I’m pretty sure that the SFMTA hasn’t installed a GPS tracker on car 578, but according to the Market Street Railway folks (not the original company, but the non-profit the driving force behind all of the vintage streetcars along Market today) that car is rarely used. If you are willing to fast forward about eight years, you stand a much better chance of catching car #162 which was from the same era.

        See also the Market Street Railway’s page about it:

    1. Not “lawless”, but rather, “self-organizing”; kinda like the societies of the Mid-East after throwing off dictatorships: this is not “lawless” at all, despite its appearance to the eyes of those more used to much more restrictive regimes.

    1. I can’t get the sound to work…

      Luckily I employ a full-time organist in my office for just such an occasion.

  20. Wow. It would be interesting for someone to film a trip down that same route now and post it for comparison.

  21. I did the film to video HD transfer of this newly struck print. It is indeed much cleaner and a little longer than previous versions. Note the wispy bearded guy at the end and the full 180′ turnaround of the cable car at the ferry building. I was told that they dated this film about 4 months before the 1906 earthquake by tracking the car license plates seen on the street. There are indeed repeat cars too, and I especially like the kid that peeks out from the back of a carriage @ 8:20.

  22. That’s what I noticed: All skinny people, all british cars, nobody has to stop for any reason.

  23. Isn’t this old news (no pun intended)? I saw this same video at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum over two years ago.

    1. What part of “Millions of people have seen the Air music video (made from a visually degraded version of the film), but until now nobody’s had access to a editable DV file…” are you unclear on?

  24. Hey, what video streaming site/player/whatever is that?
    I have all video streaming sites blocked from work but this one seems to work.
    Please help?

  25. Amazing how many people were wise to what was going on and made sure they had their moment, including the paper boys, of course (former paper boy here. All the young dudes carry the news).

  26. I don’t think that I see anything moving at more than 5 MPH.

    A recent visitor to India said that a lot of traffic control there is based on a mutual understanding of the rule ‘yield to the largest vehicle’. Includes pedestrian, bicycles up to trucks.

    My great grandfather fell from the side or back of an early street car in Baltimore and was killed. Details unknown.

    Chas Tennis

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