Before the earthquake

A Trip Down Market Street

A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, from

A regular Bioscopist is Joe Thompson, who runs both the engagingly-named The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion blog (“rambling observations on books, history, movies, transit, obsolete technology, baseball, and anything else that crosses my mind”) and the Cable Car website. Which is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to cable cars – particularly those in San Francisco.

He has just published a fascinating piece on A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, a 1905 film shot from a travelling cable car, showing San Francisco before it was struck by the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906. The film is available to see on the Library of Congress’ American Memory site, where it is accompanied by a meticulously detailed shotlist and historical notes.

The Cable Car site complements this with the discovery of an article on the exhibition of the film, after the fire, on 20 April 1907 in The San Francisco Call, this time courtesy of the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper digitisation site. As the article reports:

The picture was presented during the intermission in the middle of the performance, and was intended merely as a special feature in recognition of the anniversary of the fire. But while hearty cheers greeted the familiar scenes as they followed one after the other, the pathos of the ravages of the great fire touched many hearts and there were tears in the eyes of scores of onlookers.

Every well known building and corner shown in the moving picture won applause, but the Palace hotel, the Sutter street horsecar seen crossing the city’s main artery at the Sutter junction and the final view up Market street were greeted with outbursts of hand clapping which broke the Orpheum record for plaudits.

There are frame stills to back up the observations from the shotlist. The film itself (the producer is not known) is a fine example of a ‘phantom ride’, the common film genre of the period, where a camera was placed to the front or rear of a train, automobile, omnibus or cable car, to present a travelling shot of the passing scenery, urban or rural. Here’s a well-known picture of Billy Bitzer, later D.W. Griffith’s camerman, filming for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company around 1900:

Billy Bitzer

The picture is likely to be a publicity gimmick, however, as camera operators were never so foolhardy as to travel on a cow-catcher like this – they placed themselves on trucks to the front or rear of trains, if they weren’t positioned in the cab or carriages themselves. But it looks good.

See the earlier post on Patrick Keiller’s City of the Future exhibition for more phantom rides, and an old post on researching patents which includes an illustration of Hale’s Tours, the invention which gave mid-1900s audiences a virtual reality thrill by placing them in a railway carriage mock-up which rocked from side to side and showed ‘phantom ride’ films projected at the front of the car.

The American Memory site has a whole section devoted to San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake, with twenty-six films dating 1897-1916.

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