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Rediscovered film takes a trip through San Francisco in ruins

Our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, a century-old film of San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake aftermath turned up at a California flea market.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to our “NewsHour” Shares, something interesting that caught our eye.

    In 1906, a massive earthquake and out-of-control fire devastated San Francisco. In 2017, an century-old film turned up at a California flea market.

    After seeing the discovery on Facebook, photo historian Jason Wright bought the film on a hunch that it might be long-lost footage of a crippled San Francisco shot two weeks after the quake.

    We recently spoke to Wright from his home in Highburton, England, about the secrets revealed in the now-restored film.

  • Jason Wright:

    In April, 1906, a major earthquake struck San Francisco. The quake was very large in itself, but most of the damage was actually caused by fire which ripped through the city. Whole swathes of San Francisco were completely leveled and destroyed.

    We have known about this film for over 100 years, but it’s more of a rediscovery. It’s been lost all this time. What it actually is, is about one day two weeks after the earthquake actually hit. It’s basically a trip down Market Street done by the Miles Brothers, and there’s a famous tape that most people have already seen which went down Market Street just a couple days before the earthquake hit.

    The previous footage of the trip down Market Street only survives because one of the Miles Brothers actually sent that footage over to their New York studio literally one day before the earthquake hit. This is a missing film of their trip back down Market Street once the earthquake had already happened.

    So it allows us to really compare and contrast basically before and after and see the devastation that actually had gone on. All the hustle and bustle that you saw on the previous trip down Market Street, that’s all kind of gone, and people are quiet, kind of down, and kind of shuffling around.

    You know, all the pomp and the rich people going past in their expensive cars, that’s completely gone now. As you move down Market Street, you see most of the buildings are gone at this point. And you see a lot of ancient steam engines. They used to put chains around the buildings and hold the buildings down using the steam engine.

    As you get down towards the bottom of Market Street, though, you get to the Ferry Building, and this is the most important part of the film for me. You see the human cost of the actual tragedy. You see a lot of people basically in line, from rich to poor, everybody, and they’re waiting for ferries and boats to take them out of the disaster area.

    And then, towards the end of the movie, it flicks through a few more scenes. You see dynamiting taken place, you know, city hall being blown up, for example, which is a bit disconcerting, and then the demolition of Prager’s Department Store.

    I wanted to bring this to the people of San Francisco. I wanted to make sure we conserved it for future generations, because I think it’s very important. With this film, you see the human element of what happened. Disaster strikes, and everybody’s lives are changed.

    And it just makes us realize, I think, how quickly things can go to pieces. But it also shows us how people can, you know, dust themselves off and basically get back to life and rebuild again.

    You just can’t keep down San Francisco. San Franciscans, they just keep on going.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remarkable. That video from 1906.

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