Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

A Bizarre Tale of Electric Streetcars and 19th Century Cats

A Horsecar and an Electric Streetcar, New York.

A Horsecar and an Electric Streetcar, New York.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a time when electric streetcars shared the road with mounted riders, horse-drawn carriages, and streetcars pulled by teams of horses.  Many interesting animal stories have come out of this brief period of crossover between horsepower and the rise of the modern machine.  Naturally, the bulk of these stories feature horses, but one of the most bizarre accounts I have found involves not equines, but felines.  According to the September 6, 1893 edition of the Edinburgh Evening News, 19th century cats in the city of San Francisco had “grown so big and so numerous as to constitute a nuisance and a menace.”  The cause of their enormous size?  The introduction of electric streetcars!

Introduced to San Francisco on April 27, 1892, the SF & SM Railway (San Francisco and San Mateo Railway) was the city’s first electric streetcar system.  According to Walter Rice at the Virtual Museum of San Francisco, the line ran from the “Union Ferry building at the foot of Market Street” via a circuitous route all the way to 30th Street.  Electric power for the streetcars was supplied by “General Electric dynamos” and the motors were powered by “coal fired Corliss type stationary steam engines.”

San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway Car, 19th Century.

San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway Car, 19th Century.

There was no electricity in the rails themselves, yet the 1893 Edinburgh Evening News reports that each evening, when the cars stopped running for the night, cats from all over the city would congregate at the tracks and lick the rails – with what some might call electrifying results.  As the article relates:

Hissing Cat from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

Hissing Cat from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

“Carefully selecting a suitable spot on the rail, the cat will lick the rail and then lie down upon it a few minutes.  Pretty soon he will roll over and will stand with all four feet upon the rail and with wild eyes, arched back and distended tail, will yowl and dance, and amuse himself for an hour at a time.”

So bizarre was this nightly occurrence that an “expert electrician” was consulted on the subject.  The electrician’s opinion?  The Edinburgh Evening News reports:

“…he could not imagine what the cats could get out of the rails, but whatever it may be, the cats of the city are said to be attaining an enormous size, unheard of before, and to keep themselves in wonderful condition.”

Is there any truth at all in this strange story?  I really do not know.  However, as someone born and raised in the California Bay Area, common sense tells me that if the cats congregated at the tracks at all, it was likely to curl up on them and absorb some residual warmth.  San Francisco can be quite chilly in the fall and winter.  As for cats yowling, dancing, and growing to an enormous size as yet unheard of in the 19th century?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Edinburgh Evening News, Sept. 6, 1893.(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

Edinburgh Evening News, Sept. 6, 1893.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you would like to help a cat this holiday season, either by providing a home or by donating your time or money, the following links may useful as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)


“The Latest Cat Story.”  Edinburgh Evening News.  6 Sept. 1893.

Rice, W., & Echeverria, E.  “San Francisco’s Pioneer Electric Railway San Francisco & San Mateo Railway Company.”  The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.  Web.  10 Dec. 2015.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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