On Saturday night, a small crowd was expected to fill a 120-seat theater in Fremont, California, to watch a movie unlike any other on the big screen, one that offers a fresh look at a tragic chapter in U.S. history.
According to David Kiehn, a film historian who helped to identify and restore the footage, which he said was shot by the pioneering Miles Bros. film studio in San Francisco.
The rediscovered work is a fitting follow-up to the famous Miles Bros. production “A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire,” which shows the bustling city just days before the earthquake, its inhabitants unaware of the disaster to come on April 18, 1906.
“It’s quite a bookend to the earlier film where you see the activity down Market Street, only in a different light because everything is devastated,” Kiehn said.
Less than a decade ago, his research revealed that the earlier Miles Bros. movie was filmed not in 1905, as was long believed, but just four days before the earthquake. The new footage, which he painstakingly digitized, was filmed just a few weeks later, he said.
For the first five or so minutes, the newly found film takes viewers on a trip similar to the one in the earlier Miles Bros. production, Kiehn said. Unlike that movie, the camera in the new one occasionally pans from side to side to reveal the rubble lining Market Street, San Francisco’s main artery.
Soon, the landmark Ferry Building comes into view, its scaffolding offering a clue to the date. A photograph marked April 22 shows no such support structure, while one dated May 3 shows more scaffolding than appears in the film, suggesting the film was made sometime in between, Kiehn said.
The movie then cuts to a different view of the Ferry Building site, panning back to Market Street, where wagons are lined up for passage across the bay.
“You can even see a military guard with a bayoneted rifle standing post to control the crowds, and there’s dozens and dozens of these wagons just waiting there,” Kiehn said. “You can see all the devastation in the background.”
The latter portion of the film shows buildings being demolished with explosives. In a final scene, a crowd gathered to watch one such blast with the occasional bystander turning to look at the camera, which was still a novelty in 1906.
That final stretch of the footage is tinted red, a kind of silent film special effect, Kiehn said.
“In the early days, they would tint the film to kind of give a little color to the image,” he said. “Traditionally, red would be fire and night scenes would be tinted blue and they would have other colors to indicate some kind of mood.”
The film’s recent journey from obscurity began about two years ago.
Around that time, David F. Silver, a Bay Area dealer of antique and vintage cameras, met a man selling the reel, which was in particularly good condition and featured scenes Silver didn’t recognize. After an inspection — and a brief panic when the seller held the highly flammable nitrate film perilously close to a light — Silver decided to buy it.
“It’s the kind of treasure that I look for,” he said.
But, distracted by other work, Silver ignored the film for about a year. After unspooling much of the film down a hallway at home for a more thorough look, he was still unable to identify it, so in early 2017 he shared a post about it with a Facebook group dedicated to California history.
One of the members of the group, Nick Wright, reached out to help and eventually connected Silver with his brother, Jason Wright, a dealer of antique photographs based in England, who agreed to buy the reel from Silver.
“I was kind of secretly hoping it was going to be this long-lost Miles Bros. film, so I took a chance on it,” Wright said.
If it was what he had hoped, he wanted to preserve the film, Wright said. So he contacted Kiehn, who was featured on a 2010 “60 Minutes” segment about the pre-earthquake film.
After matching the footage to descriptions in a Miles Bros. advertisement from June 1906, Kiehn set about digitizing it, a process that took about 20 hours in all. To do so, he used a home-built machine to advance the film and photograph each frame with a digital camera. In all, the reel contained 8,665 frames, 16 for every second of footage, he said.
The recovered film was to be shown publicly for the first time this weekend in three sold-out shows at the Edison Theater, a century-old venue restored by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, where Kiehn is a film historian. The movie will be play again in early June at the 1,400-seat Castro Theater during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Wright said he plans to post at least some of the video online and will keep an archival copy for himself and share another with the Library of Congress. He wasn’t sure what he’ll do with the reel itself, he said.
“It’s been digitized, it’s been put down on safety film,” he said. “So I feel good that it’s been done. It’s been saved now.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.