Lost Video Footage Of Devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Turns Up At A Flea Market

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Early in the morning at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck San Francisco and left 80 percent of the city in ruins, and nine minutes of lost video footage of this tragic day has turned up at a flea market. The powerful earthquake left 3,000 people dead, destroyed 28,000 of the city’s buildings, and put an estimated 250,000 residents out on the streets with no homes left to return to.

The film footage of the San Francisco earthquake was shot two weeks after the incident and was captured by the Miles brothers, who owned a local studio at the time. The Miles brothers are known for the famous 13-minute cable car film of the city they captured known as A Trip Down Market Street, which was miraculously shot just days before the major earthquake and showed San Francisco’s original buildings when they were still intact, as SFGate report.

One of the elements of A Trip Down Market Street which has fascinated so many people is the carefree attitude of the city’s residents as new cars are seen zipping down the street beside the more common horse and buggies, with people waving excitingly to the camera in the cable car and going about their daily life, not knowing what fate has in store for them in the coming days.

The lost video footage showing the destruction of San Francisco after the earthquake was also filmed on Market Street and captured scenes beginning at Fifth Street all the way to the Ferry Building. However, unlike the earlier footage, this film clearly shows the toll the earthquake took on the city with the vast majority of buildings now reduced to rubble.

Lost film footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake has turned up at a flea market.
Lost film footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake has turned up at a flea market.Featured image credit: Justin SullivanGetty Images

David Silver miraculously came across the film footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake shot by the Miles brothers after purchasing it in 2016 at the Alemany Flea Market. Even the purchase of this lost film was fraught with danger, as Silver dramatically described how the seller of the fragile film was “standing there looking through a length of it with a lit cigarette hanging from his lips. We were an inch away from it going up in flames.”

Amazed at what he had discovered and wishing to learn more about it, Silver decided to share what he had found on a Facebook group, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

When historian Jason Wright read about David Silver’s video purchase and explained the importance of it, he was given access to the footage and teamed up with David Kiehn, a film historian. After that, work began to restore this important piece of history. Kiehn has remarked that it is nothing short of a miracle that this lost film footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake still exists.

“Miles brothers footage shot after the earthquake is extremely difficult to find. They shot more footage than anyone else after the earthquake, almost 7,000 feet of it, I believe — almost two hours of footage, and practically none of it survived. This nine-minute piece is the biggest segment that I’ve seen anywhere, and another great part of this footage is it re-creates ‘A Trip Down Market Street.'”

David Kiehn also pondered the painstaking process of restoring and converting the fragile nitrate film to a format that is now digital.

“It’s a very slow process, running it through the machine. It took 20 hours, an hour or two at a time. I had to be there at the machine nursing it through. There are 8,600 frames through the film. It took a few seconds to copy each frame.”

Around 90 percent of the film footage shot of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake by the Miles brothers has never been seen before and the lost video will be screened at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on April 14.