Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

by popegrutch

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

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