This Sunday night, October 17 at 7 pm, CBS News 60 Minutes (Channel 5 locally) is scheduled to run a story on what they call a Market Street “mystery” that was recently solved. All fans of San Francisco history and historic transit will want to watch this story, which centers on one of the first commercial films made in the U.S., a 12-minute trip down Market Street on board a cable car (yes!) early in the 20th century.
Don’t think it’ll spoil the show to reveal that we know something about this mystery because we were interviewed for the story by Morley Safer (nice enough to pose with me at left) aboard San Francisco’s oldest streetcar, vintage 1895 No. 578, as it trundled down Market Street. CBS crews then duplicated the original ride down Market Street by mounting high definition video cameras onboard 1916 Muni motor flat work car No. C-1. Market Street Railway suggested both streetcars to 60 Minutes and worked with Muni to arrange the charters (for which CBS paid full rates!).
Segment producer David Browning tells me the story shifts back and forth seamlessly from the old film to the new video at the same locations. (Can’t wait to see it, myself).
The solved mystery referred to by CBS on the 60 Minutes web page celebrates the meticulous research of film historian David Kiehn, of the Essenay Film Museum in Niles (now part of Fremont, but once a center of filmmaking before Hollywood existed). David blew up the long held view that the famous film showing the cable car trip down Market Street was shot in 1905. Actually, Kiehn’s research reveals, it was shot just a few days before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire that destroyed virtually everything you see in the film.
It’s not every day that you beat 60 Minutes to a story, but we first told this one four years ago, interviewing David Kiehn when his research was fresh. We learned of David from Rick Prelinger, the great local film archivist. We captured their insights and mixed them with our own extensive research on the social, political, and transportation trends of the day and created a fully narrated version of the film (which as far as we know is the only one like it).
We did it so that visitors to our San Francisco Railway Museum could get a “guided tour” of San Francisco’s main street as it was 104 years ago. Responding to popular demand, we recently started offering it for sale at the museum, using a beautiful restoration of the film just completed by Rick Prelinger and donated to us. This version shows myriad fascinating details about life along Market Street in 1906 that were simply invisible in earlier, fuzzy transfers of the film.
But don’t miss the 60 Minutes story on Sunday night at 7. Morley Safer is one of the great storytellers in American journalism and one of my idols when I was a young journalist myself. So I know I’m going to learn a lot by watching it. (It’ll probably be the last story in the show, and if you’re a Giants’ fan like me, don’t worry: we’ll be so far ahead by that point that it’ll be okay to switch over…or you can always warm up the DVR!)
Most importantly, this level of attention from what is still the most watched news program on U.S. television is a tribute to the selfless work of David Kiehn and Rick Prelinger who, working independently, have transformed a cloudy piece of old film into a wonderful window into our own past. Cheers to them!