Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Trip Down Market Street in San Francisco, Four Days Before the Earthquake, When America Was Great


Historically, the Ohlone peoples (speaking several related languages) inhabited an area from San Francisco, down the Silicone Valley to Monterey and the northern Salinas Valley. The Ohlone replaced older tribes living in the area since ~4,000 BCE. Before significant contact with Europeans, they were perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 strong in 1769.

That year, a Spanish exploratory party led by Don Gaspar de Portola and friar Juan Crespi discovered San Francisco Bay by land. Although the Spanish immediately recognized the bay for its great strategic significance, the area was remote and thus slow to develop. Russian fur traders colonized the area; the Spanish established a military fort, the Presidio of San Francisco at the entrance to San Francisco Bay; friar Junipero Serra established the Mission San Francisco de Asis; captain George Vancouver stopped by in 1792. But there were few people.

By 1800 the Ohlone population was reduced to 3,000. The overall population of San Francisco proper was less than a thousand. But it all changed in 1849 with the discovery of gold in the Sierras.

Among the adventurers drawn to San Francisco was the British born photographer Edward James Muggeridge (1830-1904). In 1868 a series of large photographs of Yosemite Valley made him world famous. A decade later Muggeridge made a "moving picture" of Sally Gardener, a race horse, and rider. It was a milestone in the history of film technology.

In 1902 four brothers (Harry, Herbert, Joseph and Earle Miles) established an early motion picture exchange in San Francisco. During the course of this first decade of the 20th century they chronicled events and locations in the West in more than 60 films.

On April 14, 1906, the Miles brothers strapped a film camera to the front of a trolley and recorded the  trip down Market Street that is at the top of this post. Their film shows the vibrancy and unruliness that was San Francisco four days before its great earthquake.

It was a time of the "robber barons," those great and larger than life men carving up the country for their own benefit and making America great. It was the time of Mark Twain and the spirit of Walt Whitman still lingered; it was a time of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. It was a time before child labor laws. Women did not have the right to vote. The income tax was unconstitutional (we needed the 16th Amendment to the constitution, ratified in 1913 to get it back). And it was a time before Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, welfare programs, or food stamps. A time before civil rights. A time before a woman's right to choose an abortion in the first two trimesters. Before Planned Parenthood. Before readily available, safe, birth control. Before environmental regulations. But America was great. It was vibrant. The streets were even worse than today.

Some want us to go back there.


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