San Francisco, California, 1906: An intriguing look at a lost time

My friend Corey, a San Franciscan, sent me the link to this a couple of days ago. Apparently this footage was taken from the front of a streetcar travelling along Market Street (the clocktower at the end of it, near Embarcadero Wharf, is a local landmark, still standing.) It is believed to be the earliest 35mm film in existence and was lost for many years; it is one of the few films depicting San Francisco as it looked before the devastating earthquake and fire. It was made just four days before the disaster and escaped destruction by virtue of the fact that it had been sent to New York by train for processing. Here, it’s been set to some very modern, un-ragtime music.

What strikes me most strongly about it is the sheer number of automobiles already on the road at that time. Also the fact that traffic safety laws apparently had yet to be written; motorcars share the road with streetcars, horse-drawn carriages and wagons, bicycles, pedestrians–all with no regulation. The only conveyances not capable of moving about at random are the streetcars. Everything else is higgledy-piggledy. People on foot cross the road at any point they like, without waiting until they are at an intersection, and often perilously close to a passing vehicle. Bicyclists zigzag nonchalantly on and off the streetcar tracks. Cars weave in and out in front of the camera, the drivers apparently completely unconcerned about what side of the road they are on. (Apparently “lanes” were not a concept yet. Neither was there a standard placement for the steering wheel; if you look closely, you’ll see that some are on the left, and some on the right.)

It’s amazing that no one in this clip gets hit or hurt. I found myself continually holding my breath, waiting for something awful to happen, a terrible pile-up that brings it all to a halt. But everyone and everything goes its merry way, luckily unharmed. In an age when fatalities on city streets were a growing problem and traffic cops would soon become a necessity, that’s perhaps the greatest wonder about this amazing old film.

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12 Responses to San Francisco, California, 1906: An intriguing look at a lost time

  1. Richard says:

    Looks like light traffic in Mexico City today 🙂

  2. Jim Hadstate says:

    Amazing film. I agree totally with you. I was sure that at any moment I was going to see someone slip and fall and the trolley was going to run over them. But still amazing footage. And to think that in 4 days, all those building would be rubble collapsed in the street and on fire. And a great many of those people we saw would be dead or mortally wounded. A true precious jewel that great pains should be taken to preserve.

  3. Paul says:

    Yes, brilliant film, and no there weren’t any road rules at that time.

  4. Polaris says:

    In 1906 cars were still for the most part very pricey and beyond the financial reach of ordinary workers, so it is amazing to see so many cars on the road in this film. The more affordable Ford Model T was still a couple of years in the future.
    Many cars in those days did not have 4 wheel brakes and braking required a great deal of anticipation.
    Some of the Model T cars lacked a fuel pump and the engine would die if a hill was too long. You would then drive the T in reverse up the hill in order to keep the engine fueled. Quite a strain on the neck if you do that for any length of time while trying to see all that you need to see.
    🙂

  5. As usual, amigo, you are a treasure trove of historical mechanical knowledge. I figured that cars were still expensive and scarce and difficult to drive then, but wow!

  6. Polaris says:

    Thanks, Bina! Standard equipment rear view automotive mirrors were also a part of the future in 1906, although in a 1906 book written by Dorothy Levitt titled The Woman and the Car she suggested that women carry a small hand held mirror of their own for this purpose.
    This Indy 500 time of year reminds me that the first known mounted rear view mirror was improvised at a 1911 Indy race. Before mirrors were used racing cars sometimes had a passenger to tell the driver what could not be seen by the mirrors that were not yet there. The mirror also eliminated the weight of a passenger. Mirrors began to become standard around 1914.
    Henry Ford kept the basic Model T at a low price by cutting a few corners. The driver’s door did not open so you had to slide across from the opened passenger door. In old movies you sometimes see a Model T passenger reach to the outside door handle to get out of the car because it had no inside handle. A dipstick measured the gasoline supply. Doctors would discuss the Ford Fracture, which was a broken arm caused by the hand cranked starter.
    A modern driver would have trouble driving a Model T because its pedals and levers do not correspond to those of modern cars. The last Model T was made in the late 1920s and even by the early 30s its pedals would have been puzzling to many drivers because by then most cars had pedal arrangements similar to those of today.

  7. The Ford Fracture–LOL! That’s right up there with Popsicle Panniculitis and Rubik’s Cube Thumb. (Text-messaging addicts probably have their own related complaint–achy thumbs from too much button-pressing on their cellphones.) I don’t imagine Henry Ford was terribly flattered to know that a specific type of fracture was being credited to him. He was very paternalistic. I’m sure that unflattering reference was a good motivator for him to seek out new ways of starting his cars!

  8. Polaris says:

    Henry Ford was certainly very paternalistic in many ways. The Model T was his baby and he stuck with it a little too long. It was a breakthrough car in 1909 but Henry’s decision to stay with it for years after it became outdated almost put the company under.
    In the Model T’s heyday Henry offered many options for the lowest priced, stripped down units that the do it yourself mechanic could install at home but I don’t think it included an electric starter, which began to become standard around 1919. The install it yourself options enabled Henry to keep making money from the car for years after it had been sold.
    An early Model T was often dropped off near a railroad station in a rural area where the proud new owner would pick it up. The owner might have been a person who had never operated a motor vehicle before so Henry provided an on the spot instruction book that must have inspired more than a few lively lessons.
    The gasoline engine Model T could be easily modified by a farmer to run on alcohol made from crop waste.
    Henry would use the wooden crates that contained the Model T parts shipped to his assembly plant to build portions of the car. The crates were designed to come apart so the wood could be recycled in this manner. Leftover wood scraps would be used for fuel, and I believe this included the Kingsford Barbeque Charcoal that is still manufactured to this day.

  9. LOL! This was obviously in the days before driving schools. I can just imagine how many of those cars wound up in ditches or having close encounters with horse-drawn carts and runaway cattle. The fuel flexibility is one trait I wish they’d hung on to–it would be great to be able to feed your car more than just one specific type of gasoline. Of course, that would piss off the petroleum industries no end…

  10. Polaris says:

    Back in the 1980s I heard someone say most cars could be modified for about $200 US to run on natural gas. Cleaner burning natural gas cars would require fewer tune ups and repairs and it would produce better fuel economy.
    Natual gas is abundant but we would still have to deal with artificially created shortages to jack up the price. Converting gasoline engines to alcohol in the 1980s might have cost even less than a natural gas conversion. Cars today are more complicated and fuel coversions might not be so moderately priced.
    I once heard a stunt driver on a TV talk show discussing a Model T Ford he had to drive for a movie. He said an original Model T in mint condition with brakes on just 2 wheels really had no brakes to speak of. It is easy to simulate what 2 wheel braking is like by using the parking brake of a modern car which only applies braking to 2 wheels but it’s not one of my favorite pastimes.
    🙂

  11. locojhon says:

    WOW,,,
    My comment was along the lines of Richard’s, and related to most of the non-westernized world of today. (You really ought to get out more, darlin’.)
    Regarding the chaotic traffic shown in the trolley ride–note that no one got hurt–that at that time, people had to be self-aware to survive, and they knew it. Today, especially in the USA, that self-awareness of risk and danger has been replaced by ever-more restrictive mommy-state laws, and in my opinion, a corresponding reduction in both self-awareness and common sense. In so many ways, I mourn the replacement of the former with the latter.
    And along the way, I was treated to Polaris’ wealth of knowledge–including reconnecting lost synapses to things I had forgotten–and a bit of good humor to boot…which led through a series of thoughts to our near-future–a world population increasingly unable to afford decreasing supplies of petroleum, and the genius of Henry’s multi-fueled Model T.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking education and brightening my day.
    locoto

  12. Interestingly, in Venezuela of all places, Chavecito is now pushing the nat-gas car. Figures that the bête noire of capitalism would be doing his level best to foil the oil companies!

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