San Francisco in Ruins

The Lawrence Captive Airship Over San Francisco in 1906 and 1908

By Simon Baker

Undoubtedly, some of the most remarkable photographs ever taken by kite-borne cameras were made by George R. Lawrence at the turn of this century. His best known image was titled "San Francisco in Ruins" and was taken on May 28, 1906, just a few weeks after the 1906 earthquake. He and his crew rushed to the devastated city as soon as possible from Chicago after hearing the news. His objective was to photograph the destruction and sell the huge contact prints made with a panoramic camera of his own design and construction. He was a professional photographer who earned his livelihood by carrying out photographic assignments for others and also covering newsworthy events on his own and selling prints to the public. The world wide impact of the San Francisco earthquake and fire was such that he knew there would be a great market for the unique aerial views he could make with the Captive Airship.

His methods have been described by me in the Fall 1994 edition of KiteLines in an article entitled, "George Lawrence: A Giant in Kite Aerial Photography". Photographs and diagrams in that article show the Captive Airship and a panoramic camera of the type he used in San Francisco. In brief, the Captive Airship was a kite train of up to 17 Conyne kites on a piano wire cable suspending a camera held by the specially designed stabilizing mechanism. The spring operated shutter was released from the ground by a current from a battery activating a solenoid in the camera.

All photographs made with this assemblage of kites, camera, and stabilizing device were identified with the words Captive Airship. The 1960 exhibition of Lawrence's ground and aerial photographs at the Chicago Historical Society contained a view from the ground of the kites, camera, and stabilizing mechanism. The caption read as follows, "'Captive Airship' was the designation Mr. Lawrence gave this harness of tandem kites, with its ingeniously suspended and triggered camera." The Chicago Tribune of August 5, 1960 reported that George Lee Lawrence, the son of the photographer, assisted the Chicago Historical Society by providing authoritative information about the various photographs used in the exhibit. There is no doubt, then, about what Lawrence meant by Captive Airship.

In my research conducted in the Prints and Photographs Collection of the Library of Congress I came across five views of San Francisco taken in May 1906. "San Francisco in Ruins" was one of four aerial Images taken by Lawrence of the devastated area of the city. A fifth aerial image was made by him of an unburned neighborhood. Working with detailed maps published in the U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin No. 324 published in 1907, I was able to identify the camera location for each aerial exposure. Two books published soon after the disaster proved to be very useful in identifying streets, neighborhoods, and individual buildings: A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Frank W. Aitken and Edward Hilton published in that city by the Edward Hilton Co. in 1906, and The California Earthquake of 1906 by David Starr Jordan also published in San Francisco by A.M. Robertson in 1907. The maps in the U.S.G.S. Bulletin No. 324 and the ground views in the two histories provided the basis for constructing the map in this article.

All four of the aerial photographs, whose locations are indicated on the map, appear in this article. Other than the spectacular "San Francisco in Ruins" (Position No. 4), the remaining three have seldom been published. They are included for their dramatic impact and to demonstrate something further about the Captive Airship. The photographs taken from Positions 1, 3, and 4 encompass an average view of 130 degrees in width. The stabilizing mechanism of the Captive Airship had three equally spaced (120 degrees apart) 15-foot-long (4.6m) booms radiating from the camera mount. One or both of these booms should be seen in each image if it was indeed made from the Captive Airship. With the camera lens set at infinity we would expect the closely located booms to appear out of focus. I have placed red pointers on the margins of each photograph where the booms are visible or have been removed by retouching. Once again I turn to the list of captions for Lawrence photographs displayed in 1960 by the Chicago Historical Society. On one of the panoramic views the following caption appeared, "The tips of the bamboo outrigging, always included in the arc of the rotating lens of the panoramic camera, were not removed (retouched) in the view of the Steamer Hamburg in this exhibit." Frequently the blurred booms were left in place out on the ends of the photographs if they were not particularly obtrusive, otherwise they were removed by retouching.

The view from over the Bay was so spectacular that extra trouble seems to have been taken to retouch the negative and remove the boom. However, evidence of retouching can be seen when we know where to look (see red pointer). The question arises about the absence of any visible boom or indication of retouching in the view from over Hyde and Green Streets (Position No. 2). This photograph is about 10 inches (25.4 cm) shorter than the other three and appears to have been severely trimmed, thereby removing the ends of the original negative where the booms normally showed up. One final comment about the appearance of the photographs. On most of them we see vertical white lines which are the cloth backing onto which the cut up large photographs were pasted so that they could be folded for storage. The contact prints averaged four feet (1.2 meters) in length and presented handling problems in ordinary storage drawers.

In 1908 Lawrence returned to San Francisco to record the progress made in rebuilding the city. I am aware of at least two views made from the Captive Airship. One was taken from the land looking out toward the Bay. A second one, reproduced here, was taken from over the Bay in an attempt to duplicate the point of view of the famous "San Francisco in Ruins" of 1906. Red pointers at the top indicate the presence of two booms in this more than 120 degree view. This is different from the location of the booms at the bottoms of the 1906 photographs. The reason for this is that he now suspended the camera under the cradle beneath the booms rather than above the booms as in 1906 and before. There is no carefully lettered title in white, only a hand written identification in the lower right hand corner. This may be an indication that the photograph was not intended for sale to the public, but might have been made for private clients.

There can be no doubt about the meaning of the words Captive Airship, appearing on the San Francisco photographs. All of the 1906 and 1908 aerial views so labeled were made with a camera suspended by kites. There is no evidence that the stabilizing mechanism was ever used with balloons.

Photograph made from Position No. 1. The title reads as follows: "Birds-eye- view of ruins of San Francisco from Captive Airship 600 feet [183m] above Folsom between Fifth and Sixth Sts. By George R. Lawrence Co., Chicago, Ill. Photo and copyright Geo. R. Lawrence Co. Chicago May 5, 1906" The Red pointers on the margins have been added to show the locations of stabilizing booms in this extremely wide angle view. Size 19 5/8" x 47" (49.8 x 119.4cm). Library of Congress.

Photograph made from Position No. 2. The title (in black letters on the lower right and corner) reads as follows: "Ruins of San Francisco 500 feet [152m] elevation above Hyde and Green Sts. Copyright 1906 Geo. R. Lawrence Co. Chicago." Size 18-3/4 x 37-5/8" (47.6 x 95.6cm). Library of Congress. This view has been trimmed so that no stabilizing booms are visible.

Photograph made from Position No. 3. The title reads as follows: "Ruins of San Francisco Nob Hill in foreground. From Lawrence Captive Airship 1500 feet [457m] elevation May 29, 1906 Geo. R. Lawrence Co. Chicago". One stabilizing boom is visible on the right and has been indicated by the addition of a red pointer. Size 19 l/4"x46 1/2" (48.9x118.1cm). Library of Congress.

Identified features are: A. Telegraph Hill, B. Yerba Buena Island, C. Union Ferry Building, D. Fairmont Hotel, E. Call Building, F. Post Office, G. City Hall

Photograph made from Position No. 4. The title reads as follows: "Photograph of San Francisco in Ruins from Lawrence Captive Airship 2000 feet [610m] above San Francisco Bay overlooking water front. Sunset over Golden Gate Copyright Geo. R. Lawrence Co. Chicago May 28, 1906" The red pointer has been placed to show where the stabilizing boom has been removed by retouching. Size 18-3/34" x 48-3/8" (47.6xl22.9cm). Library of Congress.

This photograph, taken in 1908 was designed to show the reconstruction that had taken place since the 1906 earthquake and fire. The booms appear at the top of the view, as indicated by red pointers, because the camera was mounted beneath them. The title written in ink at the lower right hand corner reads as follows: "San Francisco from Captive Airship over San Francisco Bay. Copyright 1908 by the Geo. R. Lawrence Co. Chicago." " Size 21½" x 48¼" (54.6 x l22.6cm). Library of Congress.

A much abridged version of this article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 1997 issue of Kitelines magazine (Vol. 12, No. 3). Back issues are available at the Kitelife.com website.