Three days before the disaster.

March 24, 2011 § 6 Comments

After the quake, San Francisco, 1906

The sun was shining on San Francisco three days before the 1906 quake.

This ordinary day would have vanished except that the Miles Brothers, whose pioneer film studio was located in the city, attached a motion picture camera to a trolley and recorded a 13 minute trip down Market Street (link below).

Luckily, the film was put on a train to New York the night before the quake.  The Miles Brother’s studio was destroyed.

Three thousand died in the earthquake and subsequent fires.  It is likely that some of the inadvertent actors in the film perished, but on April 15, 1906 they were vividly alive; running, hauling cargo, making their way through the milling crowd.

Although the scenes are clearly of another era, it is easy to recognize this is an American street, on which Americans are pursuing their American dreams with the usual American hustle. What could be more important than the business of business?

In 1906 the argument between the horse drawn carriage, the automobile and the pedestrian had not yet been settled.  All three mingle, cutting each other off, jockeying for position on a road for which the rules appear to be mere suggestions.  Driving on the right seems to be the only convention being observed, and then, only when convenient.

Horse drawn carriages plod.  Motorcars, built to look remarkably like their horse-drawn competition, weave and zip in and out.  Pedestrians dash through the traffic, sometimes hopping on the backs of vehicles to hitch a short ride.

The men wear dark pants and jackets relieved by the white dashes of cuffs and collars.  All wear hats, mostly bowlers, an occasional top hat or two.  Thin and fit, they carry briefcases and sacks, lumber and newspapers.  All are eagerly going somewhere.

Boys wear flat caps.  Girls and women, burdened with large hats and long heavy dresses, move slowly, like clipper ships under sail.

Pedestrians turn and stare at the camera.  One man waves.

A policeman, chest swelled beneath the dark coat with brass buttons, swings his nightstick.  A shop owner sweeps the street with a push broom between passing vehicles.

News boys are everywhere–even the young were hustling to make a buck.  At the end of the clip the camera pans a group of them. Stacked papers under their arms, they show they are still just boys by hamming for the camera.  One boy takes off his cap and twirls it on his finger.

The film clip is of a time long gone, the clothing and vehicles quaint, but the ordinariness of the day is easy to recognize, along with the determination of the people on Market Street, all of whom look as if they have places to go, things to do.

Three days later Market Street was in shambles.  Fires burning, the city reeling, all the purposeful busyness of three days earlier obliterated.

Disaster is almost always a surprise sprung after a lulling run of ordinary days which allow us to believe that our small personal ambitions are all that matter.  An ordinary day tears time into the small confetti of obligation and habit and striving.

Whether wide-reaching, like the recent Japanese tsunami, or personal like the death of a parent, disaster stuns us, derailing our comfortable and familiar routines, rendering our burning personal goals irrelevant.

I’ve come to believe that an ordinary day is the best gift of all—that and our blindness to the disaster which always lies somewhere ahead.

Without that ignorance, how could we make the plans that send us out into the bustle of the street full of hope and purpose?


(The archive that houses this film contains many other historical clips, including some shot just after the disaster, so click around).

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§ 6 Responses to Three days before the disaster.

  • craig reeder says:

    A great writer once said: “It takes a certain carelessness to endure life, an unquestioning belief that it will last. “


  • I can almost hear the myriad of voices on the 10th, 20th or 30th anniversary of that tragic day, all saying the same thing – where were you when the quake hit. We say it everyday –
    Where were you when Kennedy was shot? or Bobbie? of Martin-Luther King?
    Where were you when Kent State went down?
    Where were you when the towers fell?
    In fiction there is truth and in truth reality and in reality pain and joy, sorrow and rebirth. Thanks “great writer” for reminding us just how fragile and wonderful the ordinary days are!



  • Tgumster says:

    I watched the film clip yesterday–my, how current technology clarifies these early prints–I heard the “great writer’s” words in the background, such a soothing narration of a day in the life.

    This morning, I am reminded of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” in particular:

    “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.”

    Or in thirteen minutes.


  • That is exactly how it struck me! In watching the film I felt as if I was seeing all of humankind going about the daily business of being alive.

    I admired those people and felt sorry for them. I knew something they didn’t–as someone will one day look back at me and know the end I never saw coming. I am grateful for that blindness.


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