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Rare photos show San Francisco days before 1906 earthquake

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Photographer’s collection gives a glimpse of city streets just prior to infamous disaster

In 1996 the California State Archives added thousands of images from the collection of San Francisco photographers Grave and William M McCarthy. But until recently the public rarely had the opportunity to see any of the tableaus of 20th century life in Northern California captured by the McCarthys’ cameras.

This week, Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced the state had uploaded digital copies of some 3,000 McCarthy photos to its online database, giving Californians access to volumes of firsthand testimony about state history.

“As early adopters of automobile travel and personal photography, the McCarthy’s embodied California’s pioneering spirit,” Padilla said in a statement the Secretary of State’s website. “Their photo collection captures the landmarks and events that defined California, and beyond, during the early 20th century.”

And the archive contains a particularly rare treat for San Franciscans: Photos taken mere days—and in at least one case just 24 hours—before the 1906 earthquake.

Most of us have seen hundreds of images of the devastation and rebuilding, but chances are the McCarthy uploads are the first time many modern residents have laid eyes on the full grandeur of pre-quake San Francisco.

Here’s a few of the timely gems plucked from the full McCarthy collection. A couple are explicitly labeled as taken in the days just before the disaster, while others are more ambiguous, marked 1906 and showing no visible quake damage but with no more precise dating than that.

You can browse the full collection here.

“San Francisco -- 1906. Overview of San Francisco before the earthquake and fire of April 1906.” This photo dates to just one day before the disaster.
“Market St. San Francisco -- 1906. Street scene of Market Street in San Francisco before the earthquake and fire of April 1906.”
“Old City Hall S.F."c. 1906. Pictured is the San Francisco City Hall just days before it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fires.”
"The Cliff House, c. 1906, shows several people on Ocean Beach with the third Cliff House that was built on that site in the distance, which burned down in 1907.”
Since the Cliff House survived the quake with little damage, it’s difficult to place when the McCarthys took this photo.
“Sutro Baths Interior, c. 1906. Designed by Adolph Sutro in 1894, the bathhouses at one time covered three oceanfront acres just north of Ocean Beach and the Cliff House.”
“Fort Point and Golden Gate," decades before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge almost entirely obscured the fort.
"Presidio Avenue. Entrance to Presidio, c. 1906.”
“Presidio Nursery, c. 1906, shows the gardens at the Presidio.”
"6" Battery, c. 1906. Unidentified location, could be Baker Beach, San Francisco.”
“Dutch Windmill Golden Gate Par in San Francisco, c. 1906.”
"Spanish War Veteran Statue, shows the Spanish-American War Memorial in San Francisco, c. 1906.”