Found Footage Offers a New Glimpse at 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

A frame from the rediscovered footage shows buildings being demolished as part of the recovery from the earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906.

On Saturday night, a small crowd filled a 120-seat theater in Fremont, Calif., to watch a movie unlike any other on the big screen, one that offers a fresh look at a tragic chapter in American history.

The nine-minute silent film, much of it previously thought to be lost, shows the ruins left by the earthquake that ravaged San Francisco 112 years ago, according to David Kiehn, a film historian who helped to identify and restore the footage, which he said was originally shot by the pioneering Miles Brothers film studio in San Francisco.

The rediscovered work is a fitting follow-up to the famous Miles Brothers production “A trip down Market Street before the fire,” which shows the bustling city just days before the earthquake, its inhabitants unaware of the disaster to come on April 18, 1906.

“It’s quite a bookend to the earlier film where you see the activity down Market Street, only in a different light because everything is devastated,” Mr. Kiehn said.

Less than a decade ago, his research revealed that the earlier Miles Brothers movie was recorded not in 1905, as was long believed, but just four days before the earthquake. The new footage, which he painstakingly digitized, was recorded just a few weeks later, he said.

For the first five or so minutes, the newly found film takes viewers on a trip similar to the one in the earlier Miles Brothers production, Mr. Kiehn said. Unlike that movie, the camera in the new one occasionally pans from side to side to reveal the rubble lining Market Street, San Francisco’s main artery.

Soon, the landmark Ferry Building comes into view, its scaffolding offering a clue to the date. A photograph marked April 22 shows no such support structure, while one dated May 3 shows more scaffolding than appears in the film, suggesting the recording was made sometime in between, Mr. Kiehn said.

The movie then cuts to a different view of the Ferry Building site, panning back to Market Street, where wagons are lined up for passage across the bay.

“You can even see a military guard with a bayoneted rifle standing post to control the crowds and there’s dozens and dozens of these wagons just waiting there,” Mr. Kiehn said. “You can see all the devastation in the background.”

The latter portion of the film shows buildings being demolished with explosives. In a final scene, a crowd gathered to watch one such blast with the occasional bystander turning to look at the camera, which was still a novelty in 1906.

That final stretch of the footage is tinted red, a kind of silent film special effect, Mr. Kiehn said.

“In the early days, they would tint the film to kind of give a little color to the image,” he said. “Traditionally, red would be fire and night scenes would be tinted blue and they would have other colors to indicate some kind of mood.”

The film’s recent journey from obscurity began about two years ago.

Around that time, David F. Silver, a Bay Area dealer of antique and vintage cameras, met a man selling the reel, which was in particularly good condition and featured scenes that Mr. Silver didn’t recognize. After an inspection — and a brief panic when the seller held the highly flammable nitrate film perilously close to a light — Mr. Silver decided to buy it.

“It’s the kind of treasure that I look for,” he said.

But, distracted by other work, Mr. Silver ignored the film for about a year. After unspooling much of the film down a hallway at home for a more thorough look, he was still unable to identify it, so early last year he shared a post about it with a Facebook group dedicated to California history.

One of the members of the group, Nick Wright, reached out to help and eventually connected Mr. Silver with his brother, Jason Wright, a dealer of antique photographs based in England, who agreed to buy the reel from Mr. Silver.

“I was kind of secretly hoping it was going to be this long-lost Miles Brothers film, so I took a chance on it,” Mr. Wright said.

If it was what he had hoped, he wanted to preserve the film, Mr. Wright said. So he contacted Mr. Kiehn, who was featured on a 2010 “60 Minutes” segment about the pre-earthquake film.

After matching the footage to descriptions in a Miles Brothers advertisement from June 1906, Mr. Kiehn set about digitizing it, a process that took about 20 hours in all. To do so, he used a home-built machine to advance the film and photograph each frame with a digital camera. In all, the reel contained 8,665 frames, 16 for every second of footage, he said.

The recovered film was shown publicly for the first time this weekend in three sold-out shows at the Edison Theater, a century-old venue restored by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, where Mr. Kiehn is a film historian. The movie will be played again in early June at the 1,400-seat Castro Theater during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Mr. Wright said he plans to post at least some of the video online and will keep an archival copy for himself and share another with the Library of Congress. He wasn’t sure what he’ll do with reel itself, he said.

“It’s been digitized, it’s been put down on safety film,” he said. “So I feel good that it’s been done. It’s been saved now.”

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