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)

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

“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.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago

Weird. But very, very unlikely… I agree with you about the residual warmth though.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

It struck me as a very Frankenstein-esque tale. The 19th century belief in the magical properties of electricity, and all that.

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

Now I know cats can get seriously spooked by static electricity; we had one who always generated sparks from our old Landrover whenever we took him to the vet and his hair stood on end and he would howl dismally, but then, I can’t blame him…. I didn’t much like the electric shocks he gave me either.

Vickie
Vickie
5 years ago

Thank you for entertaining us with ‘Dancing Cats” where else would you find this but in good old SF. Evidently people were not the only ones who found fun and frolic in the city!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Vickie

You’re very welcome :) I would have loved to know who the source was for this Edinburgh newspaper article…

rshepherd1964
rshepherd1964
5 years ago

What a wonderful tale! I agree with you about the Victorian belief in the occult powers of electricity, and would like to point out that if you visit a Victorian pet cemetery it’s striking just how many cats were killed by trams and carts. I suspect that this would have made the article more believable to its readers.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  rshepherd1964

Glad you enjoyed it, Richard :) And you’re absolutely right about Victorians and electricity. I can totally imagine 19th century folks reading this article and finding nothing at all outrageous about it.

knotrune
knotrune
5 years ago

I wonder if they were getting some mineral supplement from the rails? Would extra iron make them grow big and strong?

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  knotrune

An interesting theory! But even if they could absorb some iron by licking the tracks, I don’t think it would have been in a large enough amount to have an impact on their health one way or the other.

knotrune
knotrune
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

Unless it was something they were badly deficient in previously? Otherwise the behaviour is a mystery and possibly an invention :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  knotrune

That could be. I think that the whole thing may be one of those tales which is part truth and part 19th century urban legend! The Victorians attributed many things to the power of electricity and this newspaper report may have sounded perfectly reasonable to them.

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

It might be something in the grease used on the wheels if they used an organic grease

tammayauthor
tammayauthor
5 years ago

I don’t believe this bizarre tale for a moment. I totally agree with your theory. I spent a substantial amount of time in San Francisco (some to return for good) and I agree that the cats were seeking warmth on the electric railroad tracks (much like you’ll find a cat on the hood of a car that pulled into a driveway or underneath a car that’s just been driven on a cold day to seek warmth). Market Street in SF can get VERY windy, so close to the bay, in the winter.

Tam

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  tammayauthor

Those outdoor, 19th century SF strays must have been beyond thrilled to find a source of ready warmth. If they congregated at the tracks, I definitely think that was the reason!

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