Miles Brothers Rare Film Footage Provides Glimpse of the City Days Before Earthquake
The film you are seeing here is a very rare bird indeed.
A Trip Down Market Street was recorded by placing a movie camera on the front of a cable car as it proceeds down San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906.
A virtual time capsule from over 100 years ago, it shows many details of daily life in a major American city, including the fashions, transportation and architecture of a bygone era. It was as stellar and novel for its time as Star Wars and Avatar is today.
The film begins at the location of the Miles Brothers film studio between 8th and 9th Streets, and continues eastward to the cable car turntable at The Embarcadero in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Originally thought to have been made in 1905, historian David Kiehn, who examined contemporary newspapers, weather reports and car license plates recorded in the film, reported that Trip Down Market Street was actually filmed on April 14– just four days before the devastating April 18, 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Market Street and the entire downtown area—and thus preserving a moment in the history of San Francisco that would soon cease to exist.
Produced by the four Miles brothers– Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe– the 13-minute “actuality” film was made as part of the popular Hale’s Tours of the World film series. Older brother Harry cranked the Bell & Howell
camera during the filming.
The Miles brothers had been producing films in New York and established a studio at 1139 Market Street in San Francisco in early 1906.
Harry and Joe Miles left the city with their film footage on April 17, but heard of the tragedy enroute by train to New York. They turned back with their equipment but sent the Market Street footage onto New York. Their San Francisco studio was destroyed, burning to the ground as the city lay in ruins. The film Trip Down Market Street narrowly survives today because it was sent away only a day before the tragedy.
The company set up a temporary office in Earle’s home at 790 Turk Street and during the next few weeks shot film of the ruins, refugees, and the begin-
nings of reconstruction.
The Miles vowed to rebuild their studio, but never did. San Francisco’s early role in the film industry faded from memory with the loss of the Miles’ business. They continued to operate, but the business industry changed.
In 1908, Thomas Edison formed the Motion Picture Patents Company with other large film producers. Edison’s Patents Company tried to force independent producers and filmmakers out of business so it could control both the production and distribution of films on all levels.
They succeeded at first, and the Miles Brothers New York office was forced to close.
Herbert Miles became a fierce opponent of the Patents Company, partnering with the founders of soon-to-be Universal and Fox Films to establish independent production companies and distributors. Joe Miles eventually founded a film storage company. Earle Miles ran the San Francisco office as an industrial film producer and non-theatrical distributor.
Harry Miles however, the oldest brother who did the filming here, did not live to carry on the fight. Suffering from insomnia and a series of epileptic fits that forced him to withdraw from the business, he killed himself in January of
1908 by jumping from the seventh floor of his
In 2010, Trip Down Market Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
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Note: Although it seems there are many automobiles in the film, the number of them is deceiving. That’s because the same cars frequently circle around and pass by the cable car on more than one occasion. California began registering automobiles in 1905, and license plates are visible on several of them. The car with plate 5057 was registered in February 1906 by the Reliance Auto Company.
This version of Trip Down Market Street has been enhanced to full high-definition and can be seen at a full-screen resolution for better detail.
It has been motion-stabilized, noise-filtered, and sharpened. We’ve seen the 1906 original—pioneering motion photography for its day– which is scratchy and bumpy, discolored and light-faded by comparison.
(For Ray Hillman, a San Francisco and Humboldt historian who has always taken the time as a gentleman and engaging teacher to patiently answer our many questions about everything under the sun, inspiring us to know and learn more about our place in history)