Friday, July 01, 2011

1905 San Francisco Atlas Digitized

Just months before the San Francisco quake and fire of 1906, this Sanborn Insurance Atlas was published. It shows the city in great detail how it was just before the disaster. Recently, the six-volume atlas was digitized and made available on David Rumsey's site, so these remarkable pictures are available for everyone to see.

The atlases themselves are not unmarked by one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States-- as you can see, the edges of the pages are somewhat damaged. Really, it's incredible that they survived a two-pronged event that left people homeless for years, permanently changed the course of rivers, destroyed about 25,000 buildings, and left a city looking like this:

Photo by Arnold Genthe
It's also of note that this was one of the first disasters to be documented by photograph and motion picture. Here is the photographer's description of the picture, which was taken the day the fires started:

"I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. 'Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.' I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out.... Of the pictures I had made during the fire, there are several, I believe, that will be of lasting interest. There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the morning of the first day of the fire [along Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay] which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it. Several people upon seeing it have exclaimed, "Oh, is that a still from a Cecil De Mille picture?" To which the answer has been, "No. the director of this scene was the Lord himself." A few months ago an interview about my work--I had told the story of that fire picture--appeared in a New York paper with the headline, "His pictures posed by the Lord, says photographer.""
-Arnold Genthe, "As I Remember" Reynal & Hitchcock : New York, 1936

And if you would prefer to see the pre-quake-and-fire San Francisco as drawings instead of maps and building plans, Rumey's site also has a digitized Illustrated Directory from 1895.

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