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[Detail] A trip down Market Street before the fire [production company unknown].

Collection Overview

The twenty-six films in Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916, represent early film production in America. Seventeen of the films capture San Francisco and its environs before the 1906 disaster. Seven films document the great earthquake and fire. Two later films include a 1915 travelogue that shows the rebuilt city and the Panama Pacific Exposition, and a 1916 propaganda film.

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Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

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Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

To review the contents of a film, click one of the films in the Film Titles to retrieve the bibliographic record. Each record presents a wealth of information, including a scene-by-scene description of the film. You may want to preview these notes before downloading a video film file, as downloading may take several hours to complete.

For more help with search words, go to the Subject Index.

For help with general search strategies, go to Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1897-1916, contains twenty-six films depicting life in San Francisco before, during, and after the great earthquake of 1906. By the turn of the century, San Francisco had been transformed from a lawless frontier town to a major American city. With a population of over 342,000 in 1900, it was the ninth largest city in the nation. The films in this archive offer a fresh perspective on the emergence of modern America in the early 1900s, a theme which traditionally focuses on the effects of rapid urban growth in northeastern cities and in Chicago.

1) San Francisco has had numerous earthquakes and fires and has been rebuilt several times throughout its dramatic history. Seven films in the collection capture the devastation resulting from the 1906 earthquake and fires that followed.

Search on earthquake, fire, disaster relief, and ruins. For example, search on disaster to find films such as San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 and Scenes in San Francisco. [No. 2].

2) Panoramic shots of San Francisco highlight transportation, business, recreation, and other aspects of daily life in the city at the turn of the century.

Search on Golden Gate, beach, resort, and railroad to find both residents and visitors in San Francisco. For example, search on beach to view films such as Panorama of Beach and Cliff House.

3) There are some films in the collection that contain footage of San Francisco's Chinatown. Viewing these films might lead to a larger discussion of turn-of-the-century American attitudes toward Asian immigrants.

Search on Chinese and Chinatown for films such as Arrest in Chinatown, San Francisco.

4) The collection includes footage that celebrates significant events in American foreign policy of the late 1890s.

Search on Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt, and parade. For example, search on President Roosevelt to view the film Panorama, Union Square, San Francisco, which shows the President dedicating a monument commemorating the victory of Admiral Dewey and the U.S. Fleet over Spanish forces in the Philippines in 1898.

After the earthquake, San Franciscans rebuilt their city on a more impressive scale. Search on World's Fair to travel along with two popular silent screen comedy stars as they tour the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, celebrating the newly rebuilt San Francisco and the opening of the Panama Canal.


Critical Thinking

1) Historical Comprehension

The films in Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1897-1916, focus on a pivotal twenty-year period in the development of modern America. A film captures a distinct "place in time," and the films in this archive can be viewed for visual clues to what life was like in large cities and their emerging suburbs in the early twentieth century. Films such as Market Street Before Parade depict different modes of transportation, dress, and activities popular at the time. A Berkeley, Cal., shot from the back of a moving streetcar, reveals a suburban area that is fairly built up by 1906, but still has enough undeveloped land for future growth.

2) Historical Analysis and Interpretation

The twenty-six films are historical artifacts that illustrate early film-making technology. By comparing early films with contemporary movies, students can view firsthand the evolution of movie-making technology and develop an appreciation for early film makers who pioneered the "modern" techniques of special effects, simulation, and animation some 100 years ago.

In the film San Francisco Disaster, special effects wizards used a small-scale model of downtown San Francisco, flames of spectacular dimensions, and heavy puffs of smoke to simulate the great disaster of 1906. In San Francisco's Future, film makers used animation to depict a bomb explosion on the streets of San Francisco during the Preparedness Day parade of July 22, 1916.

Historical analysis of films in the collection can address these questions:

  • Who produced these films and why? What technology was available to them?
  • Why would early film makers want to film everyday city scenes?
  • Do the film makers convey a "point of view" in their films?
  • Who was the audience for these films? What does the content of the films reveal about the concerns of Americans in the early 1900s?

3) Historical Research Capabilities

The films can be used as the starting point for a wide range of research projects. Students may be interested in exploring turn-of-the-century technology that transformed communication and transportation and changed American lifestyles. While Thomas Edison pioneered movies, other inventors were bringing new technology to the public: such as the Wright Brothers and the airplane, George Eastman and the Kodak camera, and Frank Sprague and the electric trolley.

Some students may prefer to learn more about the rapid growth of cities and the social, economic, and political changes that gave rise to the progressive movement, while others may find the topic of natural disasters and emergency relief more relevant and timely. Students might research these questions:

  • How and when does a community qualify for disaster relief?
  • What is the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?
  • What steps are local governments taking to prepare for natural disasters and minimize their effects?

4) Historical Issue: Analysis and Decision Making

America continues to be a "nation of immigrants" and the issue of immigration restriction is an ongoing social dilemma. Footage on Chinatown reveals attitudes and beliefs of the period about Chinese immigrants. For example, the film San Francisco Chinese Funeral follows the funeral procession of Tom Kim Yung, a military attache to the Chinese legation, who committed suicide after being falsely arrested and brutally assaulted by a San Francisco police officer.

This film can be used to introduce a discussion on current immigration patterns and policies and related issues including illegal immigrants, bilingual education, affirmative action, and cultural diversity.

The 1915 footage on Mabel and Fatty viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco, Cal. and the 1916 civic booster San Francisco's Future can lead to a discussion on urban planning and zoning restrictions, and the quality of life in today's cities and suburbs. Students could focus on questions such as:

  • What type of city did San Franciscans hope to create after the earthquake?
  • What resources and new technologies may have influenced the rebuilding of the city?
  • Why would people want to rebuild and live in a city that was earthquake prone?


Arts & Humanities

1) Expository Writing

To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Museum of the City of San Francisco assembled an exhibit of eyewitness accounts entitled Eyewitnesses to the Earthquake and Fire. Students can go online and read a wealth of articles, letters, and diary excerpts.

As students read one or more of these online primary source documents, they may consider these questions:

  • What was the author's reason for writing the account? Do you think the account was meant to be public or private? Why?
  • How soon after the earthquake was the account written?
  • How does the information in the eyewitness account compare with information presented in footage of the earthquake in this collection?
  • What is the writer's point of view?

Students can synthesize the information in the film footage and eyewitness accounts to write their own accounts of the 1906 earthquake. Suggest that students assume the role of newspaper reporters and file their stories answering the journalistic questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

2) Creative Writing

The films in the collection can be used as a springboard for a wide range of creative writing activities. The images of life and destruction in San Francisco in the early 1900s can provide the historical backdrop for a short story, song, poem, play, or personal anecdote. In their creative writing, students can explore such themes as the power of nature, courage and survival, tragedy and loss, and rebuilding and rebirth.

Students can use the images of a rebuilt San Francisco, as seen in the civic booster film San Francisco's Future, as the basis for a series of promotional materials encouraging people to visit or move to San Francisco. Working with a partner, they can create travel brochures, print ads, radio spots, or posters highlighting the city's unique features and many economic opportunities.

3) Literature Appreciation

San Francisco has been home to many American writers who used this dramatic city as the setting for their stories and novels. Mark Twain captured the spirit of the city he called "the liveliest, heartiest community on our continent" in a series of articles called "San Francisco", and recounted the drama of the 1906 earthquake in his novel Roughing It which can be found in California as I Saw It, 1849-1900. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, novelist Frank Norris spun a story of love and revenge in San Francisco at the turn of the century. In Martin Eden, a semi autobiographical novel published in 1909, Jack London described what it was like growing up on the docks of Oakland. Years later, novelists such as John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Amy Tam would relate their personal stories of life in and around San Francisco.

Students can read one or more stories set in San Francisco and compare written impressions of the city with visual images captured in the films in this collection. They can examine the unique characteristics that have made San Francisco such a popular "story city" in American fiction and nonfiction.

4) Speaking and Listening

Students can form small groups to plan and present oral reports on the promise and problems of urbanization in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Using San Francisco as their model, teams can explore varied aspects of urbanization, including:

  • the lure of the city-economic, social, and cultural opportunities
  • transportation and housing
  • immigration and ethnic neighborhoods
  • problems of rapid urban growth
  • reformers and reform movements