I am sort of fascinated with the time around the turn of the 20th century, those years when the country was being transformed by new technologies. The first airplanes were flown, instant long distance communication was now the norm, electricity was becoming more and more common in homes and cars were showing up in the most remote of locations, more and more replacing horses as our primary mode of transportation. . Movies were being made and distributed around the country and recordings of music were heard playing in homes. It was a vibrant,quick moving time filled with seemingly infinite possibilities for those willing to take advantage of the opportunity.
Around that time, my grandfather was a young professional wrestler here in my home town. Matches often took place at one of the many vaudeville theaters in the city, the match ending the night’s bill of dog acts, acrobats, singers, dancers, jugglers and maybe even a movie thrown into the mix. Like the time, it was a fast paced mix.
I read an account of one of his matches that took place at a local Athletic Club which were basically Men’s Clubs that had a number of teams in different sports that competed with other clubs throughout the area and also provided a place for guys to congregate and drink. This particular night his match was a Smoker ( which was just a night of entertainment) at the Kanaweola Club. There was a singer then a short boxing match followed by a traveling family of acrobats. Then came a gentleman who danced, putting on a “demonstration of Ragtime.” The wrestling match was the final event, probably because the matches were untimed meaning they could last for quite some time. This night’s match didn’t go too long but my grandfather once had a match that ran for several hours one night and was suspended until the following evening where the match finally ended after over two more hours of grappling.
It was just a wide open time. A young nation feeling its oats.
Of course, this wasn’t true for everyone. Women were still limited in their opportunities. They could not vote and for the most part were subjugated to minor roles in the work force. The nation was only three or four decades removed from the Civil War and while slavery was eradicated , black Americans were still fighting prejudice and suppression, struggling to find their own opportunity in a time when the Ku Klux Klan was taking root around the country. There was widespread poverty and disease and alcoholism. Work conditions were often appalling which led to the rise of the unions which brought about labor laws which removed the children from the mills and mines which were so common at the time.
In short, it was a tough but exciting time. Which brings me to the film below and the two images at the top of the page. This is a nearly 12 minute film of a streetcar jaunt up Market Street in San Francisco on April 14, 1906. Only four days later the fabled Earthquake of 1906 would destroy the city and leave over 3000 people dead. The two photos at the top show the before and after, the tower at the end of Market Street still standing in both. This film was a mystery for many years, the date lost in the fog of history. But careful research uncovered the date which made an already interesting film even more so.
Even though the journey is slow by today’s standards, it’s a dizzying ride with cars and people and horse-drawn vehicles all weaving and swerving in a chaos that is a little unnerving. I think it represents the time very well– fast-paced and a little dangerous. I watched and wondered how many of those people perished in the next week and what the survivors ended up doing in later days. Take a look and wonder for yourself.