Librarians Solve Mystery Of 100-Year Old Film; Aired On 60 Minutes

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Originally aired on 60 minutes, October 17, 2010

Morley Safer reports on a mystery that was solved about a 100-year-old film that we now know was made on San Francisco's Market Street just days before the 1906 earthquake. Watch the video and then read below an additional interview with the Historian David Kiehn.

David Kiehn, Historian, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

How did you become involved in the Market Street 1906 film mystery? Describe as you did in the interview your process for figuring out the mystery?

The Market Street film has been around and available to the public ever since it was made, but, for some reason, early on, people simply forgot who made it and just exactly when it was made.  For years, if you looked at the Library of Congress website, they estimated, from the state of the building construction on Market Street, the time on the Ferry Building clock and the angle of the shadows on the street, that the film was made in September 1905.  In 2005, there was a celebration of A Trip Down Market Street at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, sponsored by the Exploratorium. That Library of Congress date is what the Exploratorium people went by in celebrating the 100th anniversary. 

A friend of mine, Sprague Anderson was asked to shoot some 35mm footage with his hand-cranked camera duplicating the route down Market Street to the Ferry Building, and it was shown at that event in 2005. In the publicity for the event they were talking about the film itself and they really couldn’t say much more about it because nobody knew anything about its history other than it was what it was.  I became curious about who actually made it and when, and that prompted me to see if I could actually find some information about its origin.  That’s when I, using that September 1905 estimate, went to the San Francisco newspapers.  There were five daily newspapers in San Francisco at that time, so I figured there must have been somebody who would have written something about it, because filmmaking in 1905 was a pretty big deal.

In the 60 minute interview it was mentioned that you used computers and the internet, however microfilm was showed.  What resources did you use and how?

I looked at the newspapers on microfilm at the San Francisco Public Library, starting in August and going all the way through September and even a little bit into October, 1905.  I couldn’t find a thing, and that got me even more curious.  So, I studied the film some more and noticed there were puddles of water on the ground.  That indicated to me there must have been some recent rainfall.

I went back to the papers to look at the published weather reports, trying to pin down a date where it was actually raining quite a bit, and there was no rainfall in August or September in 1905 at all.  Zero rainfall.  I thought that was rather interesting. 

Then I realized there was another time of year where the angle of the sun and the time on the clock would match the criteria set by the film and that would be two or three months before June 21st.  Because of the state of the building construction on Market Street, it couldn’t have been March or April of 1905, and it couldn’t have been 1907, because you can see the cable car tracks on Market Street in the film, and after 1906, they electrified the line and trolley cars ran down Market Street.  So I decided it was March or April of 1906.

I went through the newspapers in March and April of 1906 and still couldn’t find any newspaper references to anybody making a film there, but I did notice in late March there was a period of pretty heavy rainfall.

As a result of that, I realized that, well, if there’s nothing in the San Francisco newspapers, then maybe there’s something in the movie trade papers.  I looked at microfilm of the New York Clipper, a theatrical weekly magazine on file at the San Francisco Library and found on April 21, 1906, the Miles Brothers advertisement for two films that they were releasing:  Climbing Mt. Tamalpais, California and Trip Through Market St., San F., Cal.

Of course, April 21, 1906, was three days after the earthquake, but in those days of printing presses and fairly long lead times, the information in that periodical was written before the earthquake.  It was obvious this was the case because there was simply no reference to the San Francisco earthquake in that issue.  But in the next issue, April 28th, there were all kinds of references to the earthquake and there was another Miles Brothers’ ad that actually detailed the situation, saying they “had the only pictures of any value ever taken of San Francisco,” including the Market Street film, that was made just one week before the earthquake, and the negative was shipped to their New York office the night before the earthquake.  That was the telling article that spelled it all out for me.  Another New York Clipper advertisement in June 1906, when the Miles Brothers were selling used prints of the film, described it as having been shot four days before the earthquake.  From there I found information from other sources that would confirm the advertisements.

First off, the Miles Brothers copyrighted the Mt. Tamalpais film as A Trip Down Mount Tamalpais on April 21, 1906.  Of the two films, it had been made earlier, probably in March, and they had time to copyright it, but the Market Street film hadn’t even arrived in New York by the time the announcement was published, so they had no time to copyright it, the demand for the film was too great.

I also noticed I could read the license plate numbers on several automobiles in the film. California started registering automobiles in 1905, and I thought that if one of the cars in the film was owned by the Miles Brothers I could establish further confirmation.  I called the California Department of Motion Vehicles and asked if they had license plate records going back to 1905.  The person who I talked to on the phone said the records were long gone, and so did two other DMV people I was transferred to.  So I went on to the internet and found that the California State Archive in Sacramento had the records on microfilm.  I went there and discovered all they had was an alphabetical listing of the owners with the numbers written beside them, so I had to look at the whole index for 1905 and 1906 to find all the names.  None of them were registered to any of the Miles brothers, but eventually I talked to a license plate collector who owned monthly bulletins and found one car was registered as late as January 1906, another was registered in February 1906.

In recent years, as newspaper archives have become searchable online, I’ve found many theater reviews printed in papers across the United States of programs packaged by the Miles Brothers featuring footage before and after the San Francisco earthquake. As early as May 1906 A Trip Down Market Street was included in the program, mentioning it by that name. And in June, 2010, I found an article in the San Francisco Call newspaper for March 29, 1906, announcing the Miles Brothers had requested the use of a cable car from United Railroads, owners of the Market Street line, so they could film on the street: “Market Street is, they say, one of the greatest streets in the world, and they propose to have the world learn of its magnificence.”  This was an article I missed during my microfilm searches.

As I learned more about the Miles Brothers I realized it made perfect sense that they would have made the film.  They were the first movie company to operate out of San Francisco, making films there from 1902, and they were also the first bicoastal film company, with an office in New York and one in San Francisco by 1903.  By shipping the developed negative to their New York office they saved the film from destruction in the fire that destroyed their San Francisco studio on Market Street.

How did 60 minutes come about to interview you?

David Browning, the producer for 60 Minutes who called me, discovered the film and its precise dating through my research in a way that many people have discovered it – through the internet.  In January 2010 my girlfriend noticed one posting of the film on YouTube, giving the date of 1905, and she wrote a comment about my research and the correct date.  At that point 900,000 people had seen this particular version of the film with a soundtrack by Air.  I soon received dozens of emails and calls asking to confirm the information about the 1906 date.  One of the callers was Browning, whose wife had received the link from a friend, and when he saw it he decided there might be a story in it.  We talked several times and I sent him evidence of my research. He and Morley Safer came to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont on August 20, 2010, to tape my interview for the segment.  Now, over 2,000,000 people have seen the film on YouTube.

Provide your job title and any additional information you'd like readers to know about you and your work.

I’m a founding member of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in 2001. We’ve been showing silent films with live music at our museum, a nickelodeon theater built in Niles in 1913, for six years now, and have shown over a thousand movies, including A Trip Down Market Street.  As a result of the attention received by the film this year, it was just added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry to stand alongside other films of historical and cultural importance deemed especially worthy of preservation.  Much of our film heritage has been lost, but silent films are still being found in archives around the world, and I’m proud to say I’ve been able to identify a number films that are now being rediscovered by the public.