Historic 1906 film captures S.F.'s Market Street

Film was made just days before the devastating earthquake and fire

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This story was first published Oct. 17, 2010. It was updated on June 21, 2011.

You're about to take a short trip into the past, a remarkable glimpse of a footnote to history we first broadcast last April. It's a film made more than 100 years ago on Market Street, San Francisco's main thoroughfare.

In fascinating detail, it shows how people lived and dressed in what was then, as now, the Golden City of the American West. The film is well known to historians.

But who made it and why, and most importantly, exactly when? For a century, time, like the fog that blankets San Francisco, has shrouded the answers. But now we know. The film is a time traveler's glimpse of a joyous city on the brink of disaster.

Our trip into the past begins on a San Francisco streetcar built in 1895.

"It still comes out once in awhile and carries passengers down the main street. It looks just like a cable car because it was built by the people who built the cable cars," Rick Laubscher of the Market Street Railway, told correspondent Morley Safer as they set off on a trolley ride.

The Market Street Railway is a non-profit group that keeps the city's vintage trolleys rolling. "This is the main artery of San Francisco and always has been," he told Safer.

Market Street is three miles long, 120 feet wide - the beating heart of the city since the days of the gold rush.

San Francisco on film: Days before the 1906 quake
This 11-minute reel of film, shot from a cable car on Market Street, captures a vibrant city just days before its destruction.

"This is where the original film started, right here about 8th Street," Laubscher explained.

The black and white film makes the past come alive, thanks to a camera that was mounted on the front of a cable car a century ago, catching glimpses of fashion, faces, and the helter-skelter of city traffic - horses, trolley cars, and that new devil's own invention, the motor car.

Extra: Watch The full film
Extra: The 1906 earthquake strikes
Extra: Film detective work
Photos: 1906 earthquake aftermath
Photos: Capturing Market Street

"You can see when people turn to look at the camera, it was really the shock of the new. Can you imagine? Here comes this contraption down the street with these guys hand cranking this camera furiously," Laubscher said.

Others had made films of San Francisco, starting in the 1890s. But the cameraman of this film had the good sense to simply turn it on and leave it on.

"When you saw that film, what did you make of the people, the news boys, the cars, the horses, everything all happening at once right here on the tracks?" Safer asked.

"Yeah. I mean, you can see the people would circulate wildly. And they're just kind of wandering across the street. You have these huge drays led by teamsters with four, sometimes eight horses hauling along," Laubscher said.

"And it seems, watching the film, that there were absolutely no traffic rules," Safer said, commenting on the traffic chaos the film captured.

"It seems like it. I mean, sort of, people, it was optional to stay to the right. But you know, it seemed to be honored in the breach. And there are people will tell you today that Market Street is still that way," Laubscher said.

Looking back a century from the same spot on the same street is an eerie sight. Teddy Roosevelt was president then, life expectancy was 47 years for men, 50 for women, most of whom still couldn't vote. No one - man, woman or child - went out without a hat.

The last few blocks of Market Street today are home to banks and brokers - "Wall Street West." A century ago, it was the wholesale district, offering coffee, tea, and spices. It was a time when a decent salary was $400 a year.

"It's left us an astonishing record, the likes of which we rarely see," film archivist and historian Rick Prelinger told Safer.

Prelinger owns the clearest of the three surviving copies of the film. "This is over 100 years old, but the image quality is just absolutely excellent," he said.

According to Prelinger, the film is extremely fragile.

Produced by David Browning